Senate debates

Friday, 22 June 2012


Parliamentary Counsel and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2012; Second Reading

11:22 am

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

The Parliamentary Counsel and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 proposes to amend the Parliamentary Counsel Act 1970 to provide for the transfer of the Attorney-General's Department's legislative-drafting functions to the Office of Parliamentary Counsel. Currently, responsibility for legislative drafting is split between the Office of Legislative Drafting and Publishing, the OLDP, and the Office of Parliamentary Counsel, the OPC. The OLDP is a division within the department comprising 23 legislative drafters and 50 staff responsible for drafting subordinate legislation as well as for the registration, editing, compilation and publication of all Commonwealth laws. The OPC is an independent statutory agency consisting of a First Parliamentary Counsel, two Second Parliamentary Counsel and 55 staff. Its responsibility is the drafting of government bills and amendments.

Most other Australian jurisdictions combine the drafting of bills and the drafting of subordinate legislation in one office. The Skehill review, entitled Strategic review of small and medium agencies in the Attorney-General's portfolio, has recommended the merger in order to realise efficiencies in the use of specialised technology and to achieve uniformity in drafting practices for principal and subordinate legislation. The measure is considered budget neutral. Its regulatory impact will be positive if the intended outcome of better legislative drafting is achieved. The coalition is happy to support this bill.

11:24 am

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very keen to make a contribution on the Parliamentary Counsel and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 today. The title of 'Parliamentary Counsel' in the name of the bill relates, in my mind, to the titles of 'Senior Counsel' and 'Queen's Counsel', and I recognise the contribution that Senator Brandis, a Senior Counsel, has just given to this parliament in what was quite a remarkable speech. Some very interesting questions were raised in the speech that Senator Brandis just gave. Senator Joyce, while not a Senior Counsel or a Queen's Counsel, added to that with some questions that I certainly hope someone might be able to answer. But I digress.

This bill proposes to amend the Parliamentary Counsel Act 1970—can I still be heard?

Photo of Ursula StephensUrsula Stephens (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Macdonald, you can still be heard.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Perhaps we should get the AWU to put some money into the electricity supply in this place. It is rather unnerving to be speaking almost in the dark, as one might say. This bill proposes to amend the Parliamentary Counsel Act 1970 to provide for the transfer of the legislative drafting functions from the Attorney-General's Department to the Office of Parliamentary Counsel.

Firstly, I congratulate those who do the drafting functions in this parliament. It is never an easy job to convert the thoughts of politicians into legislation, into laws, that then impact upon most Australians. It is a very significant task that the Parliamentary Counsel does for the people of Australia. The work requires great skill, great ability, particularly, I might say, under this government; it was not quite so bad under our government. But the qualified professional lawyers in the drafting office have had to put some of the crazy thoughts of the current government into legislation, and that is a task I would not want to undertake.

Madam Acting Deputy President, you would understand the concerns of the drafting office when they saw before the last federal election, as we all did, a promise by the current Prime Minister that 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.' That was a direct promise to the Australian public—and those in the drafting office. The rest of us would have said, 'One of the things the drafting office will not be doing in the next three years is drafting legislation to implement a carbon tax.' You can well appreciate that that would have been furthest from the minds of the people in the drafting office, because they, like everybody else in Australia, would have been able to understand the commitment, the promise, the hand-on-heart pledge, by Ms Gillard, the Prime Minister of Australia then and today, that there be would no carbon tax. Shortly after the last election, one of the first instructions given to the Office of Parliamentary Counsel, the parliamentary drafting office, would have been to prepare 18 different bills to implement that carbon tax that Ms Gillard solemnly promised the Australian public she would never introduce. How do you then draft 18 separate bills—again, I am glad it was not me who had to do it—to implement this carbon tax which we had all been promised would never be implemented? It was not just one bill saying, 'There will be a carbon tax; pay up.' There were 18 separate bills because the mere fact of introducing a carbon tax—in many cases overriding any rights the states might have, in many ways dealing with the impacts of the tax coming out and compensation being paid—is so complex. Trying to draft legislation that penalises up to 500 major emitters but no-one else is a skill in itself.

It is a long time since I practised law—and, even when I did, many might have said I needed more practice!—but I do know the difficulty in drafting documents. I never had to draft legislation, but I can well understand that drafting complex legislation like the carbon tax bills would have been a real difficulty, even for those skilled, tested and trusted practitioners in the parliamentary counsel office. I know that some, if not all, of those carbon tax bills will be flawed—and you can be assured that, when those flaws become evident after 1 July, in the typical refuge of scoundrels, the minister will get up and say, 'Oh, this is a technical error, a drafting error,' by implication blaming the parliamentary drafting office. It is guaranteed that that will happen.

One of the reasons that will happen is that those 18 very complex bills drafted by the parliamentary counsel were barely debated in this parliament. This parliament is supposed to debate all legislation to ensure that the executive government's program is thoroughly investigated and tested. But you will recall, Madam Acting Deputy President Stephens, that in this chamber those bills were rammed through in double-quick time; and, if you divide the time that was guillotined from debate on the legislation by the number of senators and the number of bills, you will find that every senator had a couple of minutes to debate every bill. As a consequence, most of the bills were not even mentioned in this chamber, because the Greens and the Australian Labor Party had got together to curtail debate and, therefore, scrutiny of those 18 carbon tax bills so that the obvious flaws could not be pointed out. I can understand the Labor Party and the Greens political party not wanting to have full debate on those bills—and particularly the Labor Party, because their leader, Ms Gillard, had promised there would never be a carbon tax, so the sooner they could get it in and get it through, the better. As I heard one of my colleagues say yesterday, the one good thing you can say about the Greens political party—and I struggle to find even one thing—is that, at least insofar as the carbon tax is concerned, they were never duplicitous. They always indicated it was part of their program. They always thought it was a good idea. With respect to those in the Greens, the radical Left in our country—as represented by the Greens political party—rarely have any good ideas, but at least they were honest about the introduction of the carbon tax. I give them credit for their honesty. You cannot say that of the Australian Labor Party.

I know Australians around the country are just waiting for their opportunity to say, 'We will not be lied to,' to Ms Gillard and the Labor Party—I suspect Ms Gillard will not be there at the next election. It does not matter what they think about the issue—whether they agree with a carbon tax, whether they are sure that the world is coming to an end because of carbon emissions, whether they are sure that the current change in climate is different to the climate change that has been happening for hundreds of thousands of years—most Australians will never forgive the Australian Labor Party for their duplicity, for promising one thing and doing another. Most Australians and all of the Labor Party know that, had they promised before the last election to bring in 18 bills, drafted by the parliamentary drafting office, that would introduce that, they would not have been elected at the last election. Everybody knows that. The Labor Party know that. You can see from the faces of fear opposite us in this chamber even today that Labor Party people know that, had they promised it before the last election, many of the senators would not be in this chamber today. But they know for certain that, at the next election, Australians will show their disgust at the duplicity and dishonesty of Ms Gillard and the party she currently leads. I raise those points again to make known to the parliamentary drafting office that we understand the difficult role they have.

The main amendments in this bill will confer on the Office of Parliamentary Counsel additional functions, functions that are currently performed by the Office of Legislative Drafting and Publishing. These relate to the drafting of subordinate legislation, making arrangements for the compilation, printing and publication of laws, and other functions incidental to ensuring the quality of legislative instruments. For those listening to this debate, let me indicate what 'subordinate legislation' is and what 'legislative instruments' are. They are pieces of legislation, pieces of rulings, by the government of the day that impact on people's lives—that can send people to jail, that can create offences. They are not legislation that is debated in this chamber. Subordinate legislation is usually called regulations and ordinances. They are supplementary or subordinate legislation that ministers sign off on and they then have the same force of law as legislation that is debated in this chamber. That has been happening since time immemorial, and it is necessary for the functions of government for that to be the case.

The Senate Scrutiny of Bills Committee, which I chair, looks at every piece of legislation, not in a policy sense but to determine whether people's rights are unduly being trampled upon, whether civil and political rights are being interfered with or whether governments are overstepping the mark by dealing with things in subordinate legislation which should be dealt with in the main legislation and debated in this chamber. I have to say, since the advent of the Gillard and Rudd government there has been an increasing tendency with legislation that is debated for them to come into this chamber and say, 'Here's the broad outline of the legislation, but the details of the legislation will be dealt with in regulation promulgated by the minister, under his hand, at some later time.' Increasingly under Labor governments, and certainly under the Gillard-Rudd Labor government, there is this tendency not to bring important legislation to parliament but to deal with it by way of subordinate legislation. Again, that does not lessen the skills needed by our parliamentary draftsman. But it is a concern for me, and I think it is a concern for most senators on this side of the chamber. And, were it known more widely, it would be a concern for all Australians that instruments that can impact upon their life, liberty and property are being drawn in the back rooms by departments of government, put into hopefully a legal form by the parliamentary draftsman and then ticked off by the minister without ever being debated in this chamber.

If you believe in parliamentary democracy then you understand that laws should be passed only if they are fully appreciated and understood and then debated and exposed by this parliament of the land and certainly by this Senate. This Senate has long had a reputation for inquiring and looking very closely—it was set up by our founding fathers to do so. (Quorum formed) The Senate is supposed to be a house that reviews bills. Under what is a very typical relationship between the Greens political party and the Australian Labor Party today, debate on this bill is also being guillotined. It shows the absolute farce which happens with a guillotine motion, which has required the Senate to come back and sit today in a very truncated way. And if you look at the Labor Party benches, you will see that none of the ministers are here. They put in these additional hours, then curtail the debate in time to ram through as many bills as possible without proper scrutiny and then the ministers all flit off around the country and around the world. It is okay for everyone else to turn up, but where are the ministers?

It shows the whole farce of this guillotine process that has been put in place yet again by the Australian Labor Party and the Greens political party—34 bills are being rammed through the parliament in this very short, two-week session. It simply shows that, so far as the Greens and the Australian Labor Party are concerned, the old idea of the Senate being a house of review that would fully and thoroughly investigate every aspect of legislation has gone by the board.

I have a lot more that I want to say about this bill and indeed other bills that are being rammed through parliament today and next week. But, unfortunately, time is going to beat me yet again. That is what happens when you have this situation. I hope the people of Australia who are listening to this debate will understand just how rotten it has become in this parliament, a parliament that is supposed to scrutinise bills but which the Labor Party and the Greens keep curtailing, ensuring that proper investigation and scrutiny does not occur. I am conscious other colleagues want to speak, so I am going to stop before my time elapses.

11:46 am

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today also to contribute to what I am sure is going to continue to be a scintillating debate on the bill before us this morning, the Parliamentary Counsel and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. Whilst I am conscious of the guillotine hanging over all of us today, I will attempt to get out what I want to get out about this bill so that the many coalition senators who are on the list can have their chance.

The Office of Parliamentary Counsel is an independent agency and, obviously, this bill brings together the functions of two offices within the parliament that are responsible for the drafting, publishing, and printing of legislation, all the things that make our democracy function—the boring bits, if you like—the big books which some of us might use as doorstops but which I have, as I am sure most of the senators here listening today also have, close at hand so that we can refer to them right throughout our work as senators. It is to do with the compilation and publication of all our laws within our democracy. This bill seeks to actually bring those things together into one place, which would seem a sensible thing to do.

I would love to quote from the Attorney-General's speech on this matter: 'The reason for doing this … as the need for greater federal regulation grew.' And hasn't that been the case—federal regulation grew. We would not be having to debate this bill if we curtailed federal regulation rather than increased it. I will make a suggestion—I will not move it as an amendment—that we decrease federal regulation across our Commonwealth rather than increase it. It might also be another way of addressing the issue that this amending legislation seeks to address.

As previous speakers have outlined, some of the work that will be undertaken as a result of this bill will be the drafting of subordinate legislation. I think Senator Macdonald made a wonderful contribution earlier, describing what that subordinate legislation is and how it interacts in a very important and intrinsic way with the functioning of our democracy. Additionally, he highlighted the lack of scrutiny that pieces of legislation sometimes receive and that not all of the devil in the detail is allowed to come before the people's representatives within the parliament.

Another function will be the preparation of compilations, reprints and information about Commonwealth laws. As you know, Madam Acting Deputy President, I am a new senator. I am not quite as new as Senator Whish-Wilson from Tasmania, but I have not quite reached my first anniversary in this place. The whole concept of having up-to-date laws has been quite important to me as I have attempted to fulfil my functions as a senator, looking at various acts and pieces of legislation. I am thinking particularly of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act, the EPBC Act, which I have on my shelf right near my desk. It has not been updated for over four years. Whilst I am sure an updated version is available online, we have been amending acts over time and having up-to-date reprints in hard copy is really important. So I am hoping that this bill will make that work easier and make sure that we have printed, published, public and up-to-date versions of our Commonwealth laws.

Another really important aspect of the work done by the Office of Parliamentary Counsel is the provision of assistance to foreign countries in drafting, printing and publishing their laws. When I think about foreign aid—and there has been quite a lot of debate recently about our contribution as a nation to those countries particularly in our own region that are not as well off as we are and whose systems and structures of government may not be as strong as ours—I think part of our contribution to the ongoing efforts to create stability in the region is offering assistance in strengthening and building central government institutions in these nations. Part of that is providing assistance in drafting laws and getting them published, printed and accessible to the citizenry within those nations so that people are all aware of their rights and responsibilities under a liberal democracy and hopefully so that they can build the strong traditions that we enjoy here in Australia in the Westminster system of governance. So that is very positive and practical work being undertaken by this office.

Another aspect, which goes to the heart of the remainder of my remarks, is that this particular office will be responsible for the maintenance of the Federal Register of Legislative Instruments. Legislative instruments are parts of our legislative framework which are a little hard to put your finger on, but I do know that my colleague in the lower house Darren Chester, the federal member for Gippsland, moved a motion this year to disallow legislative instrument No. 191 relating to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Regulations 2011. This legislative instrument related to alpine cattle grazing. As you may know, Madam Acting Deputy President, I am the granddaughter of a high country cattleman and we see it very much as part of our heritage and our culture. We want to be able to continue what has been a tradition in the Alpine National Park since way before it was the Alpine National Park, for over 150 years. I would like to preface some of my ongoing commentary with a little bit of a historical perspective on the decision that Minister Burke made around restricting cattle grazing, and on the motion moved in the other place by my colleague on this legislative instrument. It goes back to 2005, when the former state Labor government, on ideological grounds, banned the cattlemen from the national park, it having been declared a national park in the mid-eighties under both a state and a federal Labor government. The fact that there had been over 100 years of cattle grazing there at the point of its declaration did not seem to be an issue. But it became an issue for the Labor government in 2005. I might suggest that their sudden interest in this and their change of heart may have had something to do with the rise of the Greens party in my home state of Victoria rather than with any actual derogatory impact from the cumulative effect of over 100 years of cattle grazing. But I am not here to make those sorts of comments; I want to address my remarks directly to the legislation in front of us.

Since time immemorial, the Labor Party had held the seats covering Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley, being the heart of the big unions, with the power stations there. In the 2006 state election, in response to the state Labor government's decision to ban cattle grazing, the locals elected a National Party member. Let us be clear: my colleague from the other place was addressing the issue of letting just 400 cattle into a 26,000-hectare national park. I think we have to keep that in perspective.

This is about keeping a federal register of legislative instruments, and I understand that there are currently tens of thousands of legislative instruments. It is important that there is some control over this so that we can see how they interact and have some knowledge of what is going on.

I would briefly like to mention legislative instruments in conjunction with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The second draft is before us. In my home state of Victoria, we are not happy with what is currently happening, but the disallowance of legislative instruments may be a strategy that we will have to pursue given the details of this plan and its resulting decimation of our regional communities.

There are other senators in the chamber who want to speak on this bill, so I am very conscious that I will have to cede my time before the guillotine is upon us in a little over 20 minutes. I can see them lined up here, Madam Acting Deputy President, to speak to this very important piece of legislation. Thank you.

11:58 am

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak on the Parliamentary Counsel and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2012. In addressing my comments today it would be remiss of me not to begin by reminding the people of Australia that yet again, as so often in this place, as we look at the Order of Business, we see that limitations have been placed on the debate on this bill. The time allotted for debate on the remaining stages of this bill expires at 12.20 pm. For the benefit of those listening, it is not the case that we have been debating this legislation since the commencement of parliament at 9.30 this morning. In fact, the Senate has been forced to push through two other bills already this morning that were subject to the guillotine. One in particular was an appropriations bill, whereby those on the other side yet again had to come cap in hand to the parliament because once again they had miscalculated just how much money they were going to bleed from Australian taxpayers. This morning the Senate, again under the impetus of the guillotine, has had to push through a bill whereby the Labor Party have yet again asked for more money from the Australian taxpayer because of their complete, total and utter incompetence when it comes to managing Australia's economy.

When you come to this place as a senator you assume an important role in society, and one of the aspects of that role is in relation to accountability. Accountability and openness in government, I remind those on the other side, requires those who exercise power when performing the functions of government to demonstrate in and open and practical sense that they are doing so with honesty, integrity, appropriate skill and judgment, and that they have discharged their duty in a proper manner for the common good and in the public interest. The use of the guillotine is an indictment of the government and of their alliance partners the Greens yet again. Many comments have been made by the Prime Minister of Australia and the former Leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Bob Brown, saying that under no circumstances should democracy be put under attack and those who want to speak on bills be silenced. Let us see what the Prime Minister said at the National Press Club to the people of Australia on 31 August 2010. She said, 'People do want to see us more open, more accountable, more transparent. I am going to be held to higher standards of accountability than any other Prime Minister in the modern age.' I ask those on the other side: have you show the Prime Minister today's Dynamic Red? Has the Prime Minister seen that each bill the Australian Senate is debating today has been guillotined? What would the Prime Minister say in relation to the openness, accountability and the transparency she promised to the people of Australia?

What has the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Evans, said in relation to transparency, accountability and the use of the guillotine? This is what Senator Evans has put on the record:

... in government or opposition Labor supports the Senate as a strong house of review, scrutiny and accountability.

Senator Evans, all I can say to you is: have you seen the Senate Dynamic Red today? Clearly, if you have, you blatantly misled the people you were speaking to when you made that statement. Quite frankly, you probably were, because you do not believe in openness, accountability and transparency. Senator Whish-Wilson, I assume that today at 12.20 pm you will be voting for the guillotine. Perhaps you would like to know what your former leader said when he was confronted with the use of the guillotine.

"It is a case of a Howard-Crean guillotine on parliament and chainsaw attack on Australia's forests", a despairing Greens Senator Bob Brown said today.

That was back in 2002.

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

Did you say a Howard guillotine?

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration) Share this | | Hansard source

The Greens have a longstanding opposition to the use of the guillotine.

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

You have just tied yourself in knots.

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration) Share this | | Hansard source

Let us have a look at what Senator Brown said in 2006:

Senator Brown also noted that before the winter break the Senate had sat for only 34 of a potential 112 sitting days; that the Senate committee ... is being clobbered; and that debate is regularly guillotined in both Houses of Parliament.

They are just words—

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting

and some are judged merely by their words, as opposed to their actions. We will see the actions of both Labor and the Greens at 12.20 pm today, when Senator Humphries will be told mid-speech: 'Senator Humphries, sit down—and the reason I am telling you to sit down is that debate on this matter is being guillotined.' Quite frankly, the government like to hide from the people of Australia. They probably wish that we could move the Australian parliament to Antarctica because if we could move it to Antarctica perhaps then there would be no scrutiny of what they do. Senator Collins, in one of her many interjections—which I normally, quite frankly, would not take—commented on the fact that the former Howard government used the guillotine. Senator Collins, you are correct; we do not deny that. However, let us contrast the use of the guillotine under the former Howard government and the use of the guillotine under the current Labor government. This is the fact: under the current government, never have this many bills been guillotined in the Senate—

Government senators interjecting

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator Cash, just a moment. Senators on my right, please stop interjecting. Senator Cash, please direct your comments to the chair and not across the chamber to Senator Collins.

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Deputy President. The reality about the guillotine under this government, with its little alliance partner, the Greens, is this: never have this many bills been guillotined in the Senate since the parliament first met in 1901—and it is worth noting that in the last three years of the Howard government, between 2004 and 2007, when the coalition had a majority in the Senate, we guillotined just 36 bills. But, in this sitting fortnight alone, Labor and their little friends the Greens will have managed to have guillotined the exact same number of bills—36 over three years versus 36 in two weeks. When you want to talk about an attack on democracy, be sure you are very careful about what you say to those on the other side, because by your actions you shall be judged. You have already been judged twice today, because two bills that we have voted on have been guillotined, and you will again be judged shortly, in approximately 15 minutes, because that is when yet again the guillotine is going to fall on this bill.

The bill is actually a non-controversial bill. The coalition will support this bill. Despite those on the other side running off to the media and bleating every day and saying, 'All the opposition does is oppose; all it ever does is oppose,' we are actually supporting this legislation, but that is not the point. The point is that legislation in this place should always be available for debate. The mere fact that those on the other side are so incompetent that they cannot get their sitting pattern right and have to extend hours this week and next week—the mere fact that they are causing the public to pay an extra million dollars today because they need to ram some legislation through this place—does not detract from the fact that even non-controversial legislation should be able to be debated.

One aspect of this bill which is of concern to the coalition—and this has become a regular occurrence under this government—is the content of the bill which we do not know about because the government puts it all into regulation. So many of the bills that come before this place are merely shell legislation and nothing more. We are told that we have to rely on the so-called good faith of those opposite in believing that what they eventually put into the regulation will not impact detrimentally on the Australian people.

On this bill, we are going to take you at your word. I can only say to the Australian public: I hope you too are able to take this party at its word, because, with so many of the bills that come before this place, it is an indictment on the government that it betrays the Australian people time and time again. In the interests of time, knowing that Senator Humphries would like to contribute to this debate and knowing that there is all but 12 minutes left before—yet again—the guillotine falls on the Senate, I conclude my remarks.

12:09 pm

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senator Cash for highlighting the context in which this debate is taking place. It is clearly not one of the finer examples of the Australian democratic process at work. Perhaps I can just underline that point that Senator Cash made about what is happening here for the benefit of people who are listening to this debate on the radio or in the chamber. The Senate is dealing—on a Friday, when it does not normally sit—with a whole range of government legislation that the government has not been able to organise to have on at an earlier time for debate. It is legislation that spends millions upon millions of dollars of Australian taxpayers with grossly—

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

They are called appropriation bills.

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

That is right—appropriation bills. They are very important bills and are the way in which the parliament authorises the government to spend money. These bills are being considered in extremely shortened periods of time. The appropriation bills this morning had about 100 minutes of debate—hundreds of millions of dollars spent in about 100 minutes of debate. This legislation is important. It has got about one hour of debate—a 60-minute debate.

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Collins, order!

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

The national vocational education and training legislation, important legislation, again expending millions of dollars, has got 40 minutes in which the Australian parliament can decide what is important and what is not about this legislation. That is disgraceful.

Senator Bilyk interjecting

You would be able to get up and have your say as well, Senator Bilyk, except there is no time left. You have cut the time short. There will be no time left for you to have your say about this legislation.

We have here a very serious problem with the process, even though, as Senator Cash pointed out, this legislation is not exceptional. I think it is important for us to be able to bring together the resources of two disparate arms of the Commonwealth drafting function into the one office, the Office of Parliamentary Counsel. That of itself is an important, uncontroversial development that makes it easier for legislation to be properly drafted, and I think that is a rational use of resources. But I have to say that the one thing about this process that fills me with some dread is that by providing for the expanding volume and complexity of Commonwealth legislation to be managed more effectively and efficiently in this one office, we are, sadly, going to abet the process whereby the Australian government has spectacularly dishonoured one of its promises.

I know there is not much point in my getting up here and talking about the broken promises of the Labor Party. That is old news. It is a different story every day; this is only one more story to add to the list. But among the millions of promises the Labor Party appears to have made, it made a promise at the last election that for every piece of regulation it imposed on the Australian community it would take another one off—put one on, take one off. That is a sensible idea for every Australian household, every Australian business, every person in employment, every person who drives a car, every person who operates a farm and everybody subject to thousands of regulations. There are, frankly, too many regulations for the average citizen to understand and be able to work to and obey. So the promise was made to remove some regulations.

That is not what has actually happened. This government has been able to repeal some regulations. It has repealed a total of 86 regulations under the life of the Rudd and Gillard governments. Great, they have removed that burden from Australians. Unfortunately, while repealing the 86 regulations through the consolidated offices we are now considering, they have at the same time added a few more.

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration) Share this | | Hansard source

How many more?

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

It is rather a large number.

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration) Share this | | Hansard source

Ten? Fifteen? Twenty?

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a bit more than that, Senator Cash. I am afraid they have added, while removing 86 regulations, 18,089 new regulations. The world is so much better for that fact! We are all so much better off now that we are so heavily regulated by this government! So, as we creak and groan under the weight of the regulations that the Labor Party promised would not be happening, sadly we are assisting in this process by passing this legislation today. That gives me great regret, because I think it makes our system of government complex. It puts a burden on people. It makes the effectiveness of our system of government, which relies on principles like cooperative federalism to be able to work better, less effective. This legislation, sadly, facilitates that process, even though we cannot object to the idea of consolidating the resources of the government in the one place. When I see consolidation taking place, I get suspicious. We are told that this is about making things more efficient and bringing them together so that a more effective use of specialised technology can be made by those who draft the laws and regulations of our country. But I have also seen other examples where consolidation is, in fact, a byword for cutting. Only this morning I debated on radio with Senator Lundy the government's decision to consolidate Medicare and Centrelink offices in Canberra. We are told that they are consolidating two offices of Centrelink in the Tuggeranong Valley and two offices of Medicare in the city. This is not about making things better, more efficient and bringing people into the one-stop shop that people talk about. It is actually about making cuts. That is what it is all about. It is about reducing the services available to people—in this case, in Canberra—and it is a weasel word for describing a process whereby the Commonwealth drastically and in a fairly ad hoc fashion reduces its expenditure across the Australian community.

Why are they reducing their expenditure? It is because for the last four years they have spent at unsustainable rates. They have run up massive deficits and huge debt. At last somebody inside the government said, 'We have to draw a line under this and start to make the government live within its means.' So today they are involved in a desperate, random scramble to try to reduce the size of the government's spend. Decisions like this to consolidate are what results.

When the explanatory memorandum to this bill says that the bill will not have any net financial impact, I assume that that is a way of saying it will not cost any more money, but that, in fact, is not the same as saying that it will not save money. This is about reducing costs as well as making the organisation more efficient. I assume that was Mr Stephen Skehill's brief when he produced his report, Strategic review of small and medium agencies in the Attorney-General's portfolio. But whether that is the intention or not does not matter.

The other concern I have about this legislation is that, again, while we accept that we need to be more efficient in the way we spend money, we are also allowing for a greater resource to be targeted on the making of regulations. We have seen in recent years so much more of the Commonwealth's law-making function descend from laws, which have to pass through the parliament and which the democratic representatives of the people get to vote upon, down to regulations, where there is not the opportunity for parliament to debate and amend laws effectively that apply to the Australian community. This new consolidated Office of Parliamentary Counsel will be able to make regulations that affect that transition the government has been engaged in for a number of years now in a way which I suspect is not in the best interests of a healthy, functioning democracy.

Democracy is not having its best day today with the application of the guillotine, so it is appropriate that this legislation be considered for its impact on the quality of our democratic process. I for one greatly regret the fact that opportunities to have debate in this chamber about important things affecting the Australian community are diminished in some way. We have the spectacle of the parliament having to rush through the chamber legislation that is important to the future quality of life of Australian citizens and which represents the expenditure of millions and millions of dollars which Australian taxpayers have contributed to the Commonwealth's coffers in a way which just does not allow members of the Senate or the other place to do their job properly because the time has not been provided for proper analysis and consideration of what the parliament has to do. If we have to come back in the future and amend some of these bills—and I would not be surprised if we do at some point—because they have been rushed through this parliament like it is some sort of sausage factory, we will be there to ask, 'Is it really any surprise that we find ourselves in this invidious position of having to come back and repair at leisure the things we have done in haste because of the incompetence of this government?'

This government, which has botched so much of what it has done in the last four years, now expects us to trust that it has done things properly on this occasion. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.