Senate debates

Monday, 17 June 2013

Matters of Public Importance

3:59 pm

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

The President has received a letter from Senator Fifield:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The failure of the Gillard Government to focus on the business of governing.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

4:00 pm

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make some comments this afternoon on the failure of the Gillard government to focus on the business of government. Nothing could be more obvious than a government that simply has no idea how to run the country. We have seen year after year of policy failure from this Labor government. It is extraordinary how absolutely completely unable this government is to run the country properly. As somebody said to me the other day, regardless of which side of politics you support, you expect the government of the day to properly be able to run the business of government, to properly be able to run the process of government, and this Labor government simply has absolutely no idea how to do that.

What do we see? We see this consistent bickering from the other side over who should be leader. First of all we had Kevin Rudd and now we have Julia Gillard, and are we going back to Kevin Rudd? It is no wonder the Australian people have absolutely had a gutful. What they want to see is a government that is committed to good policy for the Australian people, a government that is committed to the future sustainability of the nation, not this self-indulgent navel gazing from the Labor Party that we consistently see. Quite frankly, I do not think it matters if Ms Gillard, the Prime Minister, leaves the position and somebody else takes it, be it Mr Rudd or Mr Crean or whoever else it may be. I do not think it matters. This party simply is incapable of running the country. It does not matter a toss who is leading this party, who is leading this government, because they are systemically unable to run the country properly, right through the ranks. So it simply does not matter who is at the helm, in my view. We are going to get the same shambolic government from the other side that we have seen today.

The lack of any ability to run the country is so obviously seen in the lack of attention to policy, particularly when it comes to regional students. We have seen this government consistently ignore the issue of inequity for regional students compared to city students when it comes to accessing tertiary education. Indeed, we recently got some data from the department. Many would know that there is a target to have 40 per cent of people in the 25- to 34-year-old age bracket holding a degree. What we see from this data is that, in the cities, 36 per cent of people in that age bracket have a degree, compared to regional communities, where that figure is only 17 per cent, and remote communities, where it is only 15 per cent. That is an absolute indictment of this government for their failure to address this inequity for regional students. A financial burden sits on these regional students because they so often have no choice but to relocate to attend university, and that comes at a huge financial cost. This government has no ability whatsoever to understand that. It has no idea what is occurring out there in regional communities and how so many regional students are being precluded from attending university because of its failure to act, its failure to properly put in place a policy to assist regional students. It is just not right. It is not fair that regional students simply do not have the same opportunities as city students.

This Labor government chose to put in a parental income test cap on independent youth allowance, which is one of the very few ways that our regional students have to access some financial assistance. These students, who are proving themselves independent of their parents, get hit with the government saying, 'By the way, if your parents earn a combined before-tax income of $150,000'—we are effectively talking a police officer and a schoolteacher—'sorry, you are not even able to apply for financial assistance through independent youth allowance.' So often that is the only financial assistance that makes attending university available. It is simply wrong. The failure of this government to focus on the business at hand and on the policy that is actually needed to make regional communities sustainable is simply appalling. We know that regional students are far more likely to come back to regional communities and work or practice a profession, which is exactly what we should be encouraging. We should be providing those opportunities, not putting up more barriers, which is consistently what this Labor government continues to do.

This government has no vision for the future when it comes to agriculture and rural Australia, none whatsoever. You never hear them talk about how they want agriculture to look and how they want rural communities to look in 2030 or 2040 or how they want to shape the nation to make that happen. We get absolutely nothing. Instead, we get things like the export ban on live cattle. This knee-jerk reaction from the Labor government caused the decimation of families and businesses across the north of Australia, and it is now coming right down the country, flowing from north to south. The ramifications of that stupid decision now affect more than just the north of Australia. It was appalling to see at the beginning of the year the Prime Minister, in an answer to a question after a Press Club address, refer to that snap live export ban as short-term pain. That is appalling. That is wrong.

Senator Sinodinos interjecting

Thank you, Senator Sinodinos. I will take that interjection of 'shame'. It was shameful that this government reacted to an email campaign. They did not think it through. So often this comes from people who simply have no understanding of the industry and how it operates. Not long after that, the Prime Minister was asked some questions on radio in South Australia about the dairy industry. A dairy farmer raised the issue of the carbon tax. Of course, the Prime Minister had said, 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead,' but we do now have a carbon tax, which affects agriculture and rural Australia probably more than anywhere else. When the Prime Minister was asked by the dairy farmer about the costs and the imposts of the carbon tax, the Prime Minister said, 'The industry will not only survive; it will thrive under the carbon tax.' How disconnected from the real world can a Prime Minister become if that is her view of the dairy industry under the carbon tax? It is simply appalling and unacceptable that this Prime Minister and this government are so disconnected from rural Australia, what we need and what we should be doing.

In my view, the Treasurer should be coming out now with regard to the issue of the potential takeover of GrainCorp by Archer Daniels Midland and saying that, regardless of any recommendation by FIRB, he absolutely does not see this as being in the national interest. I can tell you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that this is not in the national interest. We are talking about GrainCorp, which on the eastern seaboard holds a virtual monopoly of our grain storage, handling and logistics. It has seven out of the nine ports. That virtual monopoly on the eastern seaboard now potentially will go into the hands of one of the largest grain-processing giants in the world, operating in 140 countries and six continents. Australian grain-handling and logistics processes will become a cog in the giant multinational company of ADM. I have to declare—although many would already know—that I am a grain grower. This is not in the grain growers' interests, and it is most certainly not in the national interest. We are potentially going to lose control of that virtual monopoly of grain handling, storage and logistics on the eastern seaboard. We have no certainty around the operation of the receival sites. We have no certainty at all around the buyers and around how that process is going to work. It is not in the national interest for that to go ahead.

The government should pay more attention to issues out there in our communities and—from our perspective in the coalition—our regional communities. The Nationals and my regional Liberal colleagues understand what is needed in those regional communities. Perhaps if this government started paying a bit more attention to the business of government instead of this constant self-indulgent navel-gazing—who should be leader and who is going to run around with all the lollies—we might have a government that could actually start delivering something for the nation, particularly for the regional communities. But I suspect that is not going to happen. We are going to continue to watch this soap opera of a government. At the end of the day, the sad fact is that this nation is losing out and this nation is suffering as a result of this Labor government.

4:10 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, here I am again, responding once more to another incredible accusation from an opposition that has been aggressively pursuing a cynical, policy-free platform for several years now. To suggest that the Gillard government is not focused on the business of governing is to ignore the groundbreaking legislative reforms that this government has achieved, many of which were long overdue after close to 11½ years of inaction, delay and apathy from the Howard government.

Let me just focus on a handful of the Gillard government's many and varied achievements. Our economy has continued to grow and avoid recession, even through the aftermath of the global financial crisis, a crisis that continues to plague almost every other developed nation. We have real action on climate change, with a price on carbon soon to transition to a full emissions-trading scheme. Already this has seen a considerable drop in carbon emissions by the electricity sector and more energy produced by renewables such as hydro and wind power. Australia is set to achieve renewable targets that looked impossible not that long ago.

The National Broadband Network continues to be rolled out, an immense infrastructure achievement that many regard as on a par with the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. We have the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which will remove the cruel lottery that currently determines what sort of support people with disabilities receive. We have the introduction of Australia's first paid parental leave scheme. We have plain packaging on cigarette packages. We have a rise in the age pension. There have been a series of agreements signed with China, including a currency convertibility deal that will cut the cost of doing business as well as a formal commitment to annual leadership talks. At a time when countries across the world are crawling over each other to gain access to the globe's second-largest economy, our Prime Minister executed this game-changing foreign policy triumph. We now have a seat on the United Nations Security Council and have taken an assertive yet reasonable stand on a range of global issues, including the conflict in Syria.

We have achieved all of this despite an opposition hell-bent on destructive Tea Party-movement-style political tactics. Let me be clear. The Gillard government has fought a war of attrition with the Tony Abbott led opposition to achieve changes that needed to happen. It is a war of attrition that many Australians, even those on the conservative side of politics, have found distasteful and more suited to politics in the United States. We have fought the Leader of the Opposition issue by issue, inch by inch, because these reforms are part of the DNA of the Labor Party and they just could not wait any longer.

Politically speaking, it might have been far easier for us to succumb and pursue a policy-free agenda such as the one favoured by the opposition. At the very least, we would have been saved some of the arrogant, dishonest taunts from sections of the News Limited media that have become a daily reality. But the Labor Party does not exist to maintain the status quo, to allow the wealthy elite to grow in power, to ignore necessary legislative changes, to delay, to hesitate, to ponder, to dog whistle. No. We are here to govern. We are here to lead. We are here to tackle the challenges that Australia will face in a fluid and ever-changing 21st-century economy. We are here to take on the problems that are difficult to confront and even harder to solve, problems which are impossible to avoid for a political party concerned with the nation's interests. As Matthew Donovan noted in Independent Australia earlier this year:

All over the world reformist governments face fierce opposition from the conservative forces and large vested interests.

We have seen this played out repeatedly in Australia. … whether it be the slick … advertising blitz against the mining tax and the constant attacks from mining billionaires crying poor, the sustained campaign by the tobacco industry against the plain packaging legislation …

…   …   …

Major reform is risky. It is easy for little things to go wrong and be blown out of proportion by those who oppose it.

Despite all of that, the Gillard government has gone for it. We are doing it all, negotiating with a wilfully stubborn opposition intent on obstructing at all costs, dealing politically with a conservative media which has not given us an inch of latitude and pleading with Australians to consider the agendas of those who control the front pages of The Daily Telegraph and TheHerald Sun. We are doing it all. It is not something we can avoid—because working together, constructive change and fighting for the neglected elements of our society are what we are about.

To demonstrate conclusively that this government is governing for all Australians, let us revisit the events of just a few weeks ago. The Prime Minister, speaking on legislation to raise the Medicare levy to make the NDIS a reality, broke down in tears in the chamber when she said:

The people who've gathered here today from around the country to witness this debate know what this means … there will be no turning back.

The Prime Minister was moved to tears because, like me, she is passionate about the NDIS. She knows just what it would mean for Australians who have been unable to realise their full potential to live with dignity, to live full lives, to gain part-time or full-time employment, to contribute or to feel whole. This is a sign of a Prime Minister governing for all Australians. This is a sign of a Prime Minister who cares about achieving lasting reforms.

Whilst the Prime Minister is busy governing, fighting tooth and nail to get the job done, just consider what she has to face. Aside from the resistance of the Liberal Party and its media ring, News Limited, to everything the government has attempted, there is also the personal dimension of all of this. A hostile media, at times cheered on by members of the opposition, has focused not on the Prime Minister's policy agenda but on her appearance, her hair, her dress, her shoes, her voice, her unmarried status, her childlessness, her fashion accessories and her partner. It has been nothing short of demeaning.

I do not need to remind anyone that this was brought into the sharpest possible focus last week. We witnessed a Perth radio host, Howard Sattler, ask the elected sovereign leader of Australia whether her partner was a homosexual—because of his career as a hairdresser. Can you imagine John Howard being asked that? I am honestly not sure many politicians could have retained their dignity and stayed as cool and collected as the Prime Minister did during that interview.

It did not matter where I went over the last week, the issue raised with me was the lack of respect which has been shown to the elected leader of this country. The lack of respect which has been too often demonstrated to the elected Prime Minister of this country is unprecedented. It is not only people on this side of the chamber who are shaking their heads; all good Australians are shaking their heads in fear at how much further these sorts of personal attacks are likely to go.

I still have faith in the Australian electorate. I think that, when 14 September rolls around, they will ignore this fixation on the Prime Minister's dress, hairstyle and voice. Instead, they will see something the opposition do not want the Australian people to see—they will see that they have a real choice. They will see that they have a real choice at this election, a choice between a Prime Minister whose legislative accomplishments, from the NDIS to historic pacts with the Chinese government, will stand the test of time and an opposition leader who has shown no interest in policy or substance, who is concerned more about his own ambitions than governing for all Australians, who has no interest in economics and who is concerned more with the past than with the future.

I guarantee you this: we will face challenges this century which are not immediately apparent in this golden age we are currently experiencing. We need to start planning now. We need to plan now to figure out what part we will play in the Asian century, how changes in the global economy will affect us and how changes in the global climate will affect us. To confront these challenges, Australians need a leader as Prime Minister who will govern for all, a leader intent on making tough decisions and a leader with courage and style—a leader like Julia Gillard.

It is all very well for Senator Bernardi. He knows firsthand all about the Tea Party. He knows all about their tactics. He is one of the leaders on that side who has used those tactics—not only in this chamber but out in the community. Through his blogs, where he stands is well known.

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order, Senator Bernardi!

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On 14 September, those Australians who go to the polls will be faced with a clear choice. On the one hand is a government which has delivered on real reformist issues, such as the NDIS reforms and the reforms and investments in education. They will remember that it was us who gave the pensioners— (Time expired)

4:20 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That was an impassioned defence by Senator Polley of perhaps the worst Prime Minister we have ever seen in this country. It is interesting that whilst Senator Polley is defending publicly the role and the actions of this Prime Minister, some of which have been quite despicable—

Senator Polley interjecting

I am happy to go through them at a later stage. While Senator Polley is defending the Prime Minister, she and her colleagues are plotting to assassinate the Prime Minister politically. There is no doubt about that. You can read about that—

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On a point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President: it is quite improper for the good senator to mislead the Senate. I ask him to ponder the assertions he is making, which are quite unfounded.

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There is no point of order. It was not an imputation of improper motives.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Indeed it is not. The Labor Party have form in plotting and scheming against their Prime Ministers, particularly when they are doing well. It is not unprecedented.

Senator Polley interjecting

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! I remind senators that, under standing order 197, a senator who is on his feet may not be interrupted except on a point of order.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We know how this Prime Minister came to be Prime Minister: she did so by knifing Mr Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister at the time. Mr Kevin Rudd was democratically elected—he was there—and, all of a sudden, there was a plot and a scheme and he was taken out by the faceless men in the dark of night. We know that is happening again. While Senator Polley made an impassioned plea to defend the Prime Minister and her track record, the evidence says something quite different. This Prime Minister's track record has been one of disingenuousness. It has been one of 'the real Julia' and 'the fake Julia'—and I am just quoting the words there; I am not referring to her improperly. That was how it was characterised during her last election campaign. We have never known who the real Prime Minister is. Is it because she is as tough as nails, determined or committed? Is it because she just does not tell the truth? These are the questions that the Australian people are asking themselves.

This is the lady, remember, who was the architect of the border protection farce that we now see. This is the lady who put forward Medicare Gold and went in to bat for Mark Latham. This is a lady whose error of judgement is so grievous that it has disrupted and hurt the Australian economy, it has discredited us internationally and it has the Australian people waiting for an election because they are desperate to see some adults and a responsible government back in charge of this country.

This motion is about governing. It is not about personalities. It is not about playing victim politics, finding and isolating men in blue ties. It is not about playing the victim and saying: 'Woe is me. You're picking on me because I'm a woman,' or 'because I'm tall', 'because I'm short', 'because I'm heavy' or anything else. This is about competency, and the government will be assessed on their competency—or their incompetency, I should say, including that of the Prime Minister. They cannot hide behind claims of misogyny. If the Prime Minister and her coterie were competent and had delivered policies, then we would have very little complaint. But they have not done that.

Need I remind this chamber and the schoolchildren in the gallery that this Prime Minister's office was responsible for sparking a race riot on Australia Day of last year, where they pitted Aboriginal Australians against, and sent them to protest and endanger not only the Leader of the Opposition but also the Prime Minister's own welfare? Have we ever seen such a reprehensible action sanctioned by a prime minister's office? I would suggest no; it was a new low point in the history of government in this country. I could go on, but the fact is that the policy decisions of this government suggest that we have not been governed appropriately.

With the Prime Minister's political assassination being plotted as retribution for her own engagement in such an act, it reminded me of another politician. A Roman philosopher and statesman, he was a lawyer, an orator, a political theorist, a consul and constitutionalist. I am of course talking about Marcus T Cicero. In commenting to his friend and colleague about government, he said, and I paraphrase, that the budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced and the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled. They are wise words from ancient Rome. If you use those as the measuring stick for good government, this government has failed again and again, because in the six years of this government, six long and torturous years, we are yet to see a budget balanced. We had a country which had no net debt. It had money in the bank and investments for the future. We have now seen our national credit card limit run up to nearly $300 billion. That is $300 billion that we will be forced to repay—probably not me but my children and maybe even my children's children. That is the great tragedy: we now have intergenerational debt as a result of the spendthrift policies of this government.

We do need to refill our treasury, because if we do not, as the demographics change in this country, the fewer workers we will have and we will be forced to pay ever more tax to support this bloated and growing government. So we have to reduce our public debt. In order to do that, we have to reduce, as Cicero said, the arrogance of officialdom. We have to temper it and control it, because it is the arrogance of the Labor Party and their ilk that makes them say they know what is good for the country better than individuals do: 'Give us your money; we'll take it from you and we'll then determine what is good for you.' That is no way in which to govern a nation. The government of the day should have confidence in the decisions of the people. Unfortunately, one of the great travesties we have is that this government does not think that the Australian people are good enough to make their own determinations. We have seen it in any number of ways. Where they have tried to shape social policy, they have played one group of Australians against another, whether it be based on race, gender or ethnicity. This is a government that is simply trying to reinstate a class war. It is of no credit to Senator Polley, absolutely no credit, that she talked about the opposition being the party of billionaires—

An opposition senator: And class warfare.

And class warfare. It is extraordinary that someone like Senator Polley refuses to recognise the amazing contribution that wealthy people, who fund industry and provide the capital for it, have made to this country. There are hundreds and thousands of jobs that are provided, there are billions of dollars worth of taxes provided—yet somehow that is unfair. It is an amazing admission, showing that they have very little else to cling to.

I understand that Senator Polley, being from Tasmania, may feel deeply uncomfortable with the wealth of Western Australia, the potential of South Australia or what is happening in Queensland, but the point is that Tasmania can thrive and prosper only if the rest of the nation does. What we need to do is work cooperatively with the federation, not to set one Australian against another, not to set government against government, and for Labor not to mislead and cajole, with this false bonhomie, out of some sort of loyalty to a failed and continuing-to-fail Prime Minister. That is what the Australian people are demanding. I think the greatest disappointment to the Australian people is that this government has not taken them into its confidence. This government has diminished parliamentary and political credibility to new levels.

The fact that Senator Polley comes in here and defends the actions, the incompetence, the deceptiveness, the disingenuousness of the Prime Minister, who has lowered our reputation at home and abroad, is quite extraordinary. It is very disappointing for the people of Australia to have to listen to a defence when it is quite simply indefensible. This country is not on the right track. When you speak to people out in the community, they do not feel the country is doing well. They do not feel comfortable in their own lives. They worry about what next this government is going to do. They are desperate for an election so that they can render their verdict on the Prime Minister who Senator Polley has just so steadfastly defended. I find it extraordinary that we have come to this level where someone of Ms Gillard's stature is running the nation into the ground, yet the Australian people are prevented from having their say until the very last minute when the faceless men have determined who will be running the country.

4:31 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Gillard Labor government have focused on governing and legislating in the interests of the nation and their record speaks for itself. Senator Polley went through a number of achievements and one of those achievements which cannot be ignored is the number of jobs which have been created. Some 960,000 jobs have been created since we were first elected while 28 million people have been added to unemployment queues around the rest of the world. That is incredibly significant because in the Labor Party we know that, through having a job, you can have a livelihood and a level of prosperity, a social and economic stability in your life and for your family. That comes from employment and the dignity that work provides. Our record on jobs speaks for itself and shows very much how good governance leads to good outcomes for people right across Australia.

On the economic front there have been a number of achievements by this government—low interest rates, tax cuts, low inflation, low spending, savings, seizing the opportunities which have come about from living in the Asian century. That is very significant for Australia, as we find ourselves in the Asian region. Also there is greater protection, more agreements and fewer disputes with workers. We have given unfair dismissal protection to some 4.5 million Australian workers, many of whom are often women. There are 3.3 million Australians covered by over 24,000 agreements and industrial disputes on average are about one third of the rate they were under the John Howard Work Choices era. Those are just a few of the incredible achievements.

I want to compare the Gillard Labor government's focus on governing and legislating in the interests of the nation compared to the Liberal-National alternative. They govern by slogans which ignore the complex issues with platitudes and empty rhetoric. We have seen slogans bandied across various places thus far, and some members—the more intelligent members of the Liberal and National parties—must cringe when they see complex policies delivered in three-liner slogans. This has in no place been clearer than in the opposition ignoring the expert advice of military, civil society and policy experts who say that the old and cruel approach the Howard government took to people smuggling not only will not work but also will endanger our relationship with our nearest neighbour and will treat our most important regional partner with contempt, all for the sake of trotting out a simple issue that completely ignores the complex issue of asylum seekers and people-smuggling. In doing so, the Liberal-National party goes further, to treat the electorate with contempt, to ignore the fact that the electorate cannot deal with anything more than a slogan. Not only do they treat with contempt our regional partner, with whom we need to continue to develop our bilateral relationship in a positive way, but also they treat the electorate with contempt.

The Liberals advocated for government to abdicate its environmental responsibilities not so long ago by opposing sensible reform of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. They are content to ignore the role federal government has to play to ensure that developments are environmentally sound, all for the sake of at any cost pleasing their Liberal Premier mates. This is another clear area where the opposition have it wrong.

Let us move to some of the more recent rhetoric—it is not even recent; it has been going on for some time—concerning respect. Probably the most damaging of all the Liberal and National policies has been the denigration of government, not just of this government but of the office of government. Under the leadership of Mr Abbott, Senator Abetz and Mr Hockey, the Liberal-National party has made acceptable, and has made ordinary, language and conduct that is as extraordinary as it is appalling. Mr Hockey, a man who would purport to be the alternative or next Treasurer of this country, said of the Prime Minister on Twitter that she has never deserved respect and will never receive it. That is absolutely abhorrent. It is appalling language to be used not only by people who hold office themselves but against the Prime Minister, the highest level office in this nation.

I believe that everybody is entitled to basic levels of respect and dignity. Every person is entitled to basic levels of civility. It is our responsibility as community leaders not just to maintain that level of civility but to model appropriate behaviour. It is our responsibility to hold ourselves to higher standards—to show that we can disagree without denigrating others, and that policy can be bigger than a person.

In this climate, where the supposed leaders in the Liberal-National party are telling people that they need not respect the holders of the highest public offices in this land, is it any wonder that we hear from others, such as shock jocks like Howard Sattler and Alan Jones, who feel that they can also abandon their own responsibility?

The question is: where does it start? It starts with comments and slogans coming out of the opposition. They then get repeated on the airwaves right across the country, and repeated continuously by some of those shock jocks—people who need to take a good look at themselves as well, when we talk about respect and about how they contribute to this denigration of the offices of government, because they certainly do. While I do recognise the recent sacking of Howard Sattler, I think Alan Jones has had equally bad if not worse things to say in relation to the office of Prime Minister in this country.

There has been an ongoing denigration of that office. This has been done by the opposition. It has been done by those shock-jock media outlets, as I call them, and it is absolutely appalling. It is appalling for us as citizens of Australia who listen to this day in, day out, but it is also appalling for the next generation of young Australians to learn that that is the bar for the way we treat each other and how we show respect for our democracy, our rule of law and our whole way of operating our parliamentary system in Australia. It is pretty appalling, and I certainly feel embarrassed to see that kind of behaviour in our Australian political landscape.

When our always robust political debates move from wit and colour to pure and simple bottom-feeding, lowest-common-denominator insults, you know very much that there is a problem. When the Leader of the Opposition feels entitled to stand in front of a banner outside Parliament House that describes the Prime Minister as a witch and thereby legitimises those words, you know that there is a problem. When the most disgusting insults are circulated as an in-joke on a menu at a Liberal Party fundraiser and the member responsible for either the event or happily taking the money says, 'No questions asked; thank you very much,' you know there is a problem. When shock jocks are content to question the most personal aspects of a Prime Minister's life, or to use incendiary language that urges violence— (Time expired)

4:41 pm

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

Today we commence the final sitting fortnight of the 43rd Parliament, a parliament that will live long in the memory of all Australians—though, sadly, for all the wrong reasons. As I look into the gallery and see a number of young Australians, a number of young visitors, I wonder how they will reflect on this moment in their history—on these dark days that have marked this particular Australian government. Perhaps fittingly, it seems that this parliament is destined to end very much as it began, with a desperate Prime Minister doing deals left, right and centre to maintain her hold on office; members of the ALP opposed to her leaking to the media; and the business of the nation put on hold as the Labor Party engages in a round of navel-gazing, focusing on its own priorities and not the nation's.

If you want an example of the type of thing I am referring to, you need look no further than today's disgraceful announcement that the government will grant $10 million to the yes campaign at the upcoming referendum while providing a mere $500,000 to the no campaign. I will not dwell on the matter at length now; there will be plenty of opportunities over coming days. I will say, however, that it is a dark day for Australian democracy when the government uses taxpayers' money to subvert the democratic process in such a fashion. What the government is doing is trying to stack the deck in favour of its preferred outcome. This is truly scandalous and will be met with great rejection by the Australian people. This Prime Minister's grubby tactics, advanced by her Labor peers, stand in stark contrast to those of former Prime Minister John Howard, who gave equal funding to the yes and no campaigns at the 1999 public referendum, despite his strong personal views on that specific matter.

On the day she became Prime Minister, Ms Gillard told the people of Australia this: 'There will be some days that I delight you; there may be some days I disappoint you.' The hearts of many Australians are heavy with the daily disappointments that mark this government's performance. She was not kidding, clearly, about the second half of that sentence, though I suspect most Australians would have a hard time calling to mind any of the days on which this Prime Minister would have delighted them.

This Prime Minister has governed—and I use the term advisedly—in a state of perpetual crisis. What makes her so unique, however, is that these crises have been almost entirely of her own making. The boats continue to arrive in Australia week after week because the Rudd government, in which Julia Gillard was the Deputy Prime Minister, weakened Australia's border protection laws. The budget is now in deficit because the Rudd government indulged in reckless spending, an approach which Julia Gillard enthusiastically supported as Deputy Prime Minister and wholeheartedly embraced as the fiscal model for her own government once she had knifed the member for Griffith. Of course it is the mutual suspicion, loathing and contempt that exist between the Prime Minister and the member for Griffith that have now completely paralysed this Labor government, and it is our nation that is paying the price.

It is quite extraordinary to see the member for Griffith parading himself around the nation, almost as a shadow Prime Minister, bobbing up in front of television cameras with a few well-chosen words designed to plunge the knife a little deeper into this Prime Minister's back. Australian politics have never witnessed such a protracted, toxic intraparty feud. The Howard-Peacock rivalry was genuine, but at its core lay an actual philosophical debate, a genuine discussion, about policy directions and the future path of the Liberal Party. Likewise, the Hawke-Keating battle seems positively benign compared with what we are now being forced to endure. Paul Keating may well have been capable of some superb parliamentary invective, but it is hard to imagine him setting out to deliberately sabotage his own party's election campaign as the member for Griffith did in 2010. It is equally hard to imagine Bob Hawke being so paranoid, so utterly consumed by his vendetta against Paul Keating, that he would scale his media appearances right back, refuse to answer questions and, instead, issue self-produced videos to get his lines out. Talk about a bunker mentality!

Please do not think for a moment that I am exaggerating. Twice in the past week, the Prime Minister's office has banned the media from covering events she attended. First, the media was prevented from attending the Women for Gillard launch, presumably out of fear that the number of attendees would be unflattering to the Prime Minister. Then, again, in Adelaide yesterday, I understand the media pack was told that the Prime Minister would not be doing any media events—that was until the member for Griffith got live coverage of his participation in a fun run in Brisbane, after which a single ABC camera was hastily summoned to capture the Prime Minister serving coffee at Adelaide's Farmers Market on the condition that she would not have to answer any tough questions. This is now what the government of our country has unfortunately been reduced to—a photo opportunity war between the Prime Minister and her predecessor.

I am not a great supporter of the Labor Party, obviously, but I do pity those many thousands of Labor supporters around the country and the decent Labor members and senators in this place and the other place who are being caught up in a poisonous political duel. I think particularly of the member for Hotham, a former Labor leader, who set out in March to rescue his own party. At the time he said:

This is an issue that has to be resolved. There is too much at stake.

…   …   …   

For me, the position itself … is not a personal one …. I'm doing this in the interests of the Labor Party and, in turn, the nation.

Now, to me, those sound like the noble sentiments of a party statesman, wanting to save his party from the maelstrom in which it finds itself and to get this government to actually focus on governing—and the reward for such nobility in the Gillard-led ALP? The sack. One of Labor's most experienced and respected figures was relegated to the back bench because he dared to tell the truth; he dared to speak his mind.

We likewise heard from the member for Batman in the last sitting week in the House that he would be moving on at this election. He, too, is a man considered even by his opponents to be a good minister, a decent person, with the best interests of his nation at the core of his heart. Under this Prime Minister, there is no room for such an honourable man. Principles must give way to pragmatism, and policy must take a back seat to politics. The swelling number of former cabinet ministers now lurking on the back bench and the total inability of this government to focus on governing says so much about the blind alley into which both the current Prime Minister and her predecessor, the member for Griffith, have led a once formidable Australian Labor Party.

In 89 days, the people of Australia will have the chance to again elect a government that will actually focus on implementing its real plans and addressing the policy questions that face our nation. Given the poisonous atmosphere that now paralyses this government and the lost opportunities for our country, it is no wonder that more and more Australians are actively counting down the days until 14 September.

4:49 pm

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is another Senate sitting day and another predictable matter of public importance. This time the opposition has asked us to debate:

The failure of the Gillard Government to focus on the business of governing.

In order for us to debate this matter of public importance an hour of the Senate's valuable time to consider government legislation has been lost. I predict that not a word of the desultory opposition contributions in this debate from Senator Nash, yourself, Mr Acting Deputy President, and Senator Smith will be worth reporting on the news bulletins tonight. In fact, I predict that this debate will amount to nothing more than yet another waste of the Senate's valuable time.

We have only eight sitting days left of the 43rd Parliament. The opposition could play a more responsible role. The opposition could make a more serious contribution to the work of the Senate. As you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, the Senate workload is immense. A cursory read of today's Senate Notice Paper shows that government bills number 27. According to today's Order of Business the number of bills to be introduced this Monday is another 41. Even with Senator Sinodinos's rudimentary arithmetic skills, I think, he could even work out that that makes the total number of bills to be dealt with a whopping 68 bills.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Resume your seat, Senator Faulkner. Senator Sinodinos.

Photo of Arthur SinodinosArthur Sinodinos (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Assisting the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Casting aspersions on other members of the chamber without knowledge of their arithmetic capabilities and degrees in economics is, I think, beyond the pale of what should be an opportunity for a reasonable exchange of views on important topics of the day. While I am on my feet may I add—

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No, you cannot debate the point, Senator Sinodinos. I will draw Senator Faulkner's attention to the sensitivity that you have displayed and ask Senator Faulkner to continue.

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I take Senator Sinodinos's word for the fact that he does not have rudimentary arithmetic skills. Of course, apart from that whopping 68 bills, I do not want to ignore the disallowance motion on charities regulation to be debated, either.

Many of these bills are urgent; many of them are of immense importance. They deserve more time and more consideration than does this inane matter of public importance. Of these bills eight, including the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency Bill and the Superannuation Legislation Amendment (Service Providers and Other Governance Measures) Bill, require passage on or before tomorrow to allow Executive Council action on 28 June. The aged-care package, including the Aged Care (Living Longer Living Better) Bill, requires passage before 21 June. Passage of the Corporations and Financial Sector Legislation Amendment Bill is required on or before 23 June. Passage of the National Disability Insurance Scheme Legislation Amendment Bill is required on or before 26 June. Passage of the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013, the Tax laws Amendment (2013 Measures No. 2) Bill and the Sugar Research and Development Services Bill and related bills are required on or before 27 June.

In addition to those bills another 20 bills require passage by 30 June. These include Appropriation Bill (No. 1) and Appropriation Bill (No. 2), the Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill (No. 1), the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment Bill, the Private Health Insurance Amendment (Lifetime Health Cover Loading and Other Measures) Bill and the Social Security Amendment (Supporting More Australians into Work) Bill. All of these bills are priorities. All of these bills deserve serious Senate review. All of these bills deserve debating time in this chamber, and all of these bills are, of course, so much more important than this time-wasting exercise of the matter of public importance today.

One critically important piece of legislation requiring the Senate's attention relates to the National Disability Insurance Scheme. I believe that the establishment of DisabilityCare Australia is our nation's most significant social reform since Medicare. DisabilityCare Australia will ensure that Australians with significant and permanent disabilities get the support they need and allow them to live their lives with choice and dignity. To provide a stable and reliable revenue stream for DisabilityCare Australia and to provide certainty to people with a disability and their families and their carers the government is increasing the Medicare levy by half a percentage point. All revenue raised from increasing the Medicare levy will be placed in a special fund, the DisabilityCare Australia Fund, which is established by the DisabilityCare Australia Fund Bill and the DisabilityCare Australia Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill. Let's pass these critically important bills assisting some of the most vulnerable members of the Australian community because they also require passage by 30 June this year before the parliament gets up. I say to the opposition: get on with it. These bills are all so much more important than this time-wasting, desultory matter of public importance debate.

Of course, in addition to this huge legislative program, we have the Australian Education Bill which provides the foundation for a legislative framework that will deliver vital increases in funding for schools around the country. That bill enshrines the government's commitment to ensure an excellent education for all school children regardless of their background and circumstances. The bill sets out a national vision for the development of an ambitious National Plan for School Improvement that will see Australia placed in the top five countries in reading, science and mathematics by 2025. I say again, let's not have this bill, another critically important piece of legislation, delayed by more time wasting from the opposition.

I want to say, finally, it really does appear to be an irony of today's MPI, obviously totally lost on Senator Fifield, that the opposition has wasted an hour of the Senate's precious time to accuse the government of a failure to focus on the business of governing. Instead of lecturing the government, perhaps, just perhaps, for once, they should take their own advice.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This discussion has concluded, and so I will call on any ministerial statements.