Monday, 22 September 2008
I seek leave to move a motion to provide that general business notice of motion No. 200 for the introduction of the Urgent Relief for Single Age Pensioners Bill 2008 be called on immediately and that the bill have precedence over all government business until determined.
by leave—The opposition is seeking leave, as we have just heard, to suspend all procedures until that bill is dealt with. The Australian Greens would amend that motion to first have the three revenue-raising bills, dealing with the luxury car tax, the Medicare levy alteration and the condensate tax, dealt with first. We see the responsibility for dealing with the revenue raising as being equal with that of dealing with the expenditure. We believe all the bills can be dealt with this week, but we are of a mind to say to the opposition, ‘First, let’s deal with the revenue-raising legislation, and then let’s immediately deal with the expenditure on the increase in the pensions,’ which the Greens have, of course, initiated debate on in this place and want to see passed this week.
by leave—I am not going to grandstand on the issue, but pensioners are doing it tough and for the Senate to delay a debate on the pension would be sending pensioners the wrong message. We call on both the major parties to look at a way of supporting a debate on the bill and maybe going through to the second reading pretty quickly so at least we can get to the issue. Frankly, if pensioners are listening to this debate and hearing that some people are wanting to stall and delay before we have a debate on the issue, that would be sending them all the wrong signals. Family First want to have this debate on pensions as quickly as possible.
by leave—My position in relation to the opposition’s motion is this. I agree with Senator Brown that there is a link between a measure that will obviously cost more for taxpayers and tax-raising measures, but it is clear that there is a great deal of urgency and concern in the community about the issue of pension increases and how pensioners are doing it tough. My position is that there ought to be a debate up until the second reading stage of the opposition’s proposed bill. But, in relation to the third reading stage, given that Senator Fielding is moving a second reading amendment, I think the responsible thing to do is to look at the cost implications of the other measures that are being put and for the third reading stage to be delayed for further consideration in order that we can go through the process of looking at the ramifications of the bill and any amendments.
by leave—The Labor government treat the issue of income and support for pensioners very seriously. That is why we are deeply depressed and disappointed by the opposition’s failure to treat this issue with the seriousness it deserves. We know that a week and a half ago the opposition said this was going to be their priority in parliament. A whole week went by when they fought among themselves over their internal machinations, and nothing occurred for pensioners other than two rather poor questions asked of me in the parliament. That was the extent of the effort. I take on board what Senators Brown, Fielding and Xenophon have said and indicate that it is not our intention to debate or delay decision making by debating a suspension. It seems to us that that does not assist the Senate. The government is focused on trying to get its budget measures through this parliament. The opposition have embarked on a schoolboy tactic of trying to talk out the second reading of the debate indefinitely so we do not get to the substance of the issues, I think out of fear that they may not get what they want out of the committee stage of the bill. Their behaviour is unexplainable and inexcusable.
The government want to get on with government business; we want to get on with passing the budget at a time when Australia is under enormous external financial pressure and the instability of international markets is putting pressure on all economies. We want our budget passed, we want our surplus maintained and we want to have the capacity to provide the protections for Australians—families, pensioners and others—that are necessary. So, we will not delay the Senate by arguing the detail of suspension, although this is an unprecedented move by the opposition. Never before has there been a suspension moved by an opposition to bring on an appropriations bill. Our view is that it is clearly not constitutional. I know the Clerk has provided alternative advice; but we have advice from other sources. With all due respect to the Senate Clerk, he is not infallible. On occasions he may be wrong. On this occasion we argue that he is wrong. We all know that this bill, if passed by the Senate, will not be debated in the House of Representatives. We support the advice that for it to occur in that way is unconstitutional.
This is nothing but a stunt but the issue at stake, support for pensioners, carers and those on disability and veterans pensions, is important. Look at the whole approach of the opposition here: first of all it was a bill only about pensioners that ignored veterans, carers and those on disability pensions. Today they have thrown in veterans as a sort of afterthought. But this is clearly a stunt rather than a serious contribution to the issues that are at stake here. The government have outlined a serious piece of work to try to come to terms with the financial pressures pensioners are under. I indicate on behalf of the government that we are prepared to have the debate on the substantive issues rather than on suspension because we actually want to get on with real government business. The opposition ought to think about their position in seeking to delay budget bills. We have put a proposition that we will sit extra hours. We are keen to get on with it. We are already in late September and we are still debating budget bills. The opposition is still refusing to let us debate the questions that were contained in the May budget. This is not responsible.
Senator Minchin would well know that we are acting in total accordance with practice and procedure of the Senate. If there had been any problem with it Senator Minchin well knows he could have made that procedural argument. He knows that is not right. What we have is petulant behaviour by the opposition—absolute petulance—made worse, I suppose Senator Minchin, by your sacking from the defence portfolio, I understand. But that is not the point.
Mr President, I raise a point of order. Did the Senate give leave for a short statement or for a long argument and political speech by the leader?
I think it is an important issue. We are not seeking to delay the debate. I was not aware of the various positions the Independents and Greens were taking until just before or as they spoke. Our view is that if the opposition are to persist with this we would rather deal with it on its merits and put our case and move on. There is important government business that needs to be transacted. I appreciate the sentiments Senator Brown outlined. I think they are important. I have not gone to the detail of whether we adjourn at the second reading or the third reading. That is a question for the chamber. We will not be seeking to divide on the suspension if it is supported by a majority of the Senate. So if the opposition get support in the chamber for the suspension then we will look to debate the substance of the bill. But I do think that the opposition ought to think carefully about how they seek to use the time of this chamber and accept responsibility as an alternative government in relation to the budget. The Labor government will debate the substance of the issue rather than seek to delay the Senate by having a long debate about procedural issues.
by leave—Let me make it clear that the opposition have said to the government that we will comply and cooperate with reasonable requests for extra time for the debate this week on those budget bills. The condensate bill has been on the paper before but it was put off. We have had previous bills where government senators have far outnumbered non-government senators. We have examples of that. We stand ready to cooperate with the government to get these budget bills through this week. In relation to this particular issue it was Senator Evans last week who criticised the coalition for not taking pensioner issues seriously and he himself said that it is important that this parliament do all it can to support pensioners. This is precisely what this is about.
In relation to the procedure at hand, I have sought leave to move a motion. I can agree to amend it to accommodate the concerns of Senator Xenophon and the canvassing of the second reading amendment by Senator Fielding. I will therefore be seeking leave to move a motion to provide that general business notice of motion no. 200 for the introduction of the Urgent Relief for Single Age Pensioners Bill 2008 be called on immediately and that the bill have precedence over all government business until it is read a second time.
That would accommodate Senator Xenophon’s concern in relation to the third reading of the bill. I impress upon Senator Xenophon and Senator Fielding that this is a way of dealing with this issue and its urgency, but also accommodating both Senator Fielding’s ability to put forward a second reading amendment and also Senator Xenophon’s wish that it not proceed to a third reading at this stage. We would simply be moving that the bill have precedence but only up until the second reading vote is taken. That is what the coalition are now seeking to do. I seek leave to continue on that basis.
That general business notice of motion no. 200 for the introduction of the Urgent Relief for Single Age Pensioners Bill 2008 be called on immediately and that the bill have precedence over all government business until it is read a second time.
As foreshadowed, I move on behalf of the Greens that the motion moved by Senator Ellison be amended as follows:
Omit ‘immediately’, substitute ‘immediately after the Senate has completed consideration of the orders of the day relating to the Tax Laws Amendment (Luxury Car Tax) Bill 2008 and related bills and the Tax Laws Amendment (Medicare Levy Surcharge Thresholds) Bill 2008 and the Excise Legislation Amendment (Condensate) Bill and the Excise Tariff Amendment (Condensate) Bill 2008’.
I move this amendment because the Greens are firmly of the opinion that the bills should be dealt with in the order that we deal first with the bills which are to raise some $3.274 billion over four years and then proceed to the opposition bill to increase the single age and veterans pension by $30 a week. I can foreshadow that we will move to extend the single age and veterans pension increase to people who are on disability pensions as well.
There was a filibuster from the opposition at the end of last week, and we want to see these matters comprehensively, properly and seriously dealt with. Our proposal, particularly in view of the fact that we will be sitting longer hours this week, is to deal with the three government revenue-raising bills and to then bring up the expenditure bill. We can deal with all of those. If it is done in that order then the pensions bill can be taken through to determination later this week.
Of course, this does not at all interfere with the urgency of any of the matters, and I can tell senators from long experience in this place that if this course of action is supported and taken, we will get the same outcome but we will get a much more concentrated, pertinent and serious debate in the chamber in the coming few days. We have put forward this proposal seriously. It does not amend the outcome, but it does responsibly alter the trajectory to that outcome.
I would counsel the government to think again about not supporting this course of action. It is obviously in the interests of the government to get its revenue-raising legislation dealt with and determined, one way or another. The course of action that the Greens are putting forward will concentrate the minds of the Senate on that task because of the generally felt urgent nature of the Greens longstanding policy to have the pension increased by $30 a week in the way stated in the opposition legislation and which is now coalition policy, although it was not at this time last year.
I say to the government and to all members of the chamber: you ought to support the Greens amendment so that we can best get an outcome on all six pieces of legislation by the end of the week.
This amendment may be well intentioned, but it is sending pensioners all the wrong signals—that we are willing to debate other issues before their needs. Frankly, I think we have taken so long to get to the point where we can actually have a decent debate on pensioners in this chamber that to delay it a minute longer would be foolish. I am making a short statement now, but I think we need to get to the issue. Family First will be moving a second reading amendment that we will need to get to about increases for disability pensioners; the parenting payment; carers, who are doing it tough; wife pensions; and all of those others. So we do not want to delay this at all. We want to make sure that pensioners get a fair go and a fair say in this chamber now rather than delaying it for other issues. The amendment put forward may be well intentioned, but it would stall the issue of the debate, which is giving real help to pensioners in need and giving them a fair go.
I maintain my position that I believe that the appropriate thing to do is to deal with this motion. I cannot support Senator Brown’s amendment, but Senator Brown does make a good point in that if you want to give pensioners something more, the money has to come from somewhere, and there are $3.27 billion of revenue measures that are being debated in this chamber that I believe need to be dealt with sooner rather than later. My concern is this: I think we should send a signal to the community that the issue of pensions is an important one. It is a priority issue, and I note the work that Senator Brown, Senator Fielding and others have done in raising this as an issue.
I believe that the appropriate thing to do is deal with the age pensioners bill up to the second reading stage but can I say, in terms of the matters implicit in Senator Brown’s amendment, that I think the people of Australia do want us to get on with legislation, get on with the luxury car tax, sooner rather than later and, whilst I respect the right of every senator to speak on every bill, I wonder whether some in the community would see this as a delaying tactic on the part of the coalition in respect of the luxury car tax measure, and I hope we can deal with that sooner rather than later.
I will place on record the reason for the coalition’s rejection of the Greens amendment. I can understand what Senator Brown is saying. But we are of the view that this is a matter of great urgency. In fact, members of the Greens have indicated how much they think this is important. We have heard statements made by the Greens that there should be a $30 increase for pensioners. We appreciate the concern that the Greens genuinely hold. We believe that this is therefore a matter which should be dealt with as a matter of urgency.
We certainly have other bills. We can deal with them during the course of the week. The tax bills will be dealt with this week; there is no question of that. But this is an issue which is important here and now. I agree with the comments made by Senator Fielding and Senator Xenophon. We have to send a clear message to pensioners in Australia that we understand their plight. There is an urgent need for their plight to be addressed. This bill is a first step in that direction.
The tax bills have been moved around the Notice Paper. We have seen a great deal of fluidity there. As I said, the condensate bill was to be dealt with prior to the Western Australian election, but then was put off until afterwards. We believe that we have cooperated fully with the government’s legislative program. We will continue to do so and provide extra time. We think that Senator Xenophon’s suggestion that we go up until the second reading vote is taken is a good one. That also accommodates debate on Senator Fielding’s amendment, and we think that that is a reasonable situation.
For those reasons, we cannot agree with the Greens amendment, although we understand the reasons for Senator Brown moving it. We say with respect that this is a matter of great urgency. It needs to be dealt with now. We can still deal with those other bills during the course of the week.
That the amendment (Senator Bob Brown’s) be agreed to.
I will move to amend the motion which says that the pensions bill has precedence over all government business until it is read a second time to the words ‘it is read a second time’ and to go back to the word ‘determined’. We have had a debate about how the pensions bill must be determined because it is the most urgent matter. We are moving into a situation here where the Senate is agreeing to that sentiment but not carrying it through. It is not logical. So I move this amendment to say that if we are now going to give the pensions bill precedence over the revenue-raising bill, let us determine it. Let us not get to the second reading and leave it to some other time indeterminate into the future. Senator Fielding will have to vote for this amendment on the basis of the argument he gave a moment ago. It is logical and sensible and proper procedure in bringing this bill on for it then to be determined; not left to the second reading for some future indeterminate time for resolution. We are in support of the pensions being increased. Let the Senate, now that it is determined to deal with that bill, deal with it completely. Therefore—by leave—I move:
Omit “the bill has been read a second time”, substitute “determined”.
Question agreed to.
Motion as amended agreed to.