Monday, 24 June 2013
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Superannuation, Australian Education Bill 2013, Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (Senator Conroy) to questions without notice asked by Senator Cash, Cormann and Mason today relating to the consideration of legislation in the Senate.
The Gillard government is in complete chaos. They are unravelling before our eyes. There is chaos, dysfunction, division and incompetence everywhere. They have one hand at each other's throats and the other hand with a knife in each other's backs. They are jumping ship, packing up their bags, packing up their offices. They are all over the place. The Gillard government has not just lost its way; it has lost the plot. But guess what? In the middle of all this chaos, in the middle of all this dysfunction, in the middle of all this division and incompetence, there is one thing that will always unite the Australian Labor Party—that is, the bidding for the union movement. When there is the vested interest of the union movement at stake, they will not leave any stone unturned. So it is this week.
I asked Senator Conroy why there was not going to be a proper debate on the Superannuation Legislation Amendment (Service Providers and Other Governance Measures) Bill 2013. The answer is very simple: because the union movement is desperate, absolutely desperate, to see this bill go through without the sensible amendment that was proposed by the coalition in the House of Representatives and that, extraordinarily, was passed by the House of Representatives 72 to 68. It would see at least one-third of directors on union dominated industry super funds be independent directors, to ensure that there is some proper attention and an appropriate diversity of skills, background and perspectives on superannuation boards. But of course the union movement is desperate to prevent that from happening, even though the government's own Cooper review—which was commissioned by former Senator Nick Sherry, who actually cared about good policy in superannuation—recommended that it was absolutely vital to ensure that there was appropriate provision for independent directors on industry super fund boards. But Minister Shorten, at the behest of the union movement, who did not want any interference in his cosy corporate governance arrangements that are currently in place, went out of his way to stop the particular measure from going ahead.
Here we are being asked in the Senate to deal with not one, not two, not three but four superannuation bills in less than an hour. The House of Representatives, which is not usually known to be a very detailed house of review and does not take a lot of time in the final details and the final policy issues behind the specific pieces of legislation, spent 54 minutes dealing with just one set of coalition amendments to improve this legislation. Yet here in the Senate, where we are supposed to be the house of review, where we are supposed to provide proper scrutiny of executive government proposals, we will be lucky if we have half an hour for the four bills, given all of the divisions that are probably going to fall over from before.
This is just an indication of everything that is wrong with the Gillard Labor government. For six months, this bill lingered in the House of Representatives, with the government doing nothing to progress it. Then all of a sudden they put it up and lost a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives, which, if there was not so much other incompetence and chaos going on, would probably have been front page news. But in the middle of all the chaos and incompetence under the leadership of our current Prime Minister it is very hard for a lost vote in the House of Representatives to get onto the front page of the newspaper. Here we are today and the government is ramming this through. Things have become so ridiculous that Minister Shorten is now lobbying the Financial Planning Association to lobby me so that I will lobby the government to add something else to the list of latest bills to be guillotined. Why doesn't he talk to his own people? Why is he asking the Financial Planning Association to lobby me so that I will lobby the government on his behalf? This government has completely lost the plot. They are going in 102 different directions. It is time for this farce to come to an end. (Time expired)
The Labor government makes no apology for having a full legislative agenda. To be fair and give credit to the opposition, they should not be shy about taking credit for delaying the legislative agenda of the Labor government. There is always a star on the other side, and that is probably Senator Macdonald. In the short time that I have been in this 43rd parliament, I have noticed that Senator Macdonald has never missed an opportunity to filibuster, amend, procrastinate, report and waste the time—in my considered view—of the Senate. That is his job. He is in opposition. He does not like being in opposition, but that is his job. He is there very diligently working away and taking every opportunity of wasting a second or a minute. He probably has a blackboard in his room that he uses to work out how much he has wasted every day. That is, as I said, their job.
We have a limited sitting period and a full legislative agenda. Taking a cursory glance at the number of bills that have passed through the 43rd parliament, there have been a very large number of them. I read the other day that 87 per cent of them were passed with consensus. But as we get down to the end of the legislative cycle—the end of the opportunity to pass legislation—we notice an increase in the activity of the opposition as they try to use up all of the available time. And that is their job; make no mistake, they are stars at it. Then, when the government, faced with not completing its right task, implements, with the Greens, the guillotine, all hell breaks loose.
I would like to talk a little bit about the superannuation industry. I am not sure that Senator Cormann is on the mark there, despite the fact that you opposed the introduction of superannuation—which, let us be fair, was a wage rise deferred—and you opposed industry super funds all the way until they became a trillion-dollar part of our economy. They were instrumental during the GFC in bankrolling our banks. There has been substantial change in the composition of boards. The unions did have the numbers in the old days—I was around in those days. There were five union directors and four employer directors. It has been legislated that they must have an even number of employer representatives and union representatives, with an independent chair. These things are working.
But Senator Cormann wants to go further. He wants to further disenfranchise the voice of workers in their own superannuation funds by adding another level of supervision, another level of cost. The guts of it is that all trustee directors act in the interest of members only. Adding another three independent directors at the sorts of salaries that they command means that that cost has to be spread among the members of that super fund. There is no shortage of independent and professional advice in industry super funds. I was a super fund trustee for 16 years. I chaired the investment committee. We were able to get every bit of independent advice that we needed with no problem whatsoever.
Senator Cormann interjecting—
No, Senator Cormann, that is not true. If every boss was elected by his workers in the same way that we were then he would be allowed to sit on the board of a super fund. Industry super funds are delivering year in, year out very good returns, including this year. With proper governance, proper due diligence, proper access to independent advice, independent chairs, diligent employer representatives and diligent union representatives, no aspersions can be cast. There has been no failure in industry super. The trustees have represented the members and delivered for working people in Australia year in and year out. We want that to continue. MySuper is one of those things that will make industry super funds better and enable them to deliver better returns for working Australians. (Time expired)
I have often admired the Prime Minister's commitment to and sincerity about education, including higher education, and her belief in its transformational nature. I know that she used to welcome serious policy debate on education. She, like many of us in parliament, has benefitted from a good education. I read her National Press Club speech on this topic and it was excellent. She, better than most people in this place, understands the role of education in changing our lives. How we fund our schools—both government and non-government—is very important. All of us in this place know that standards are failing within our schools both domestically and, comparatively, internationally. We spend a fortune in this country on education and yet our standards are falling. The United Nations says that we are the best place in the world to live, according to the human development index. And yet our education system is failing us.
There is real concern in the community about teacher quality, as you would be aware, Mr Deputy President. There would not be much between the government and us—a cigarette paper of difference—about the importance of teacher quality and of community and parental engagement. All those issues are absolutely key, and are in fact the key to making Gonski work. You can throw buckets of money at education and it will not make a dime of difference. That is why we need this debate in this country.
As well as that, plenty of schools say they are going to be worse off. In my home state of Queensland they say that under the Gonski reforms they would be worse off. We even have concerns about where the money is going to go. This feeds into higher education and ultimately—and the Prime Minister is right—into the stories about equity and opportunity. They are important. It also ultimately feeds into productivity, a wealthier country and our national interest. You cannot divorce education and educational outcomes from a more productive community and a better and more unified one. That is why we have to have this debate.
For some reason the government does not seem to want to have this debate. Can you imagine spending 2¾ hours on Wednesday afternoon on something as vital as this is to our nation's, and our kids', future? As the Prime Minister herself said, 'It is the biggest change in school education in 40 years and there was less than three hours of debate devoted to it.' This is absolutely and utterly ridiculous. There are stacks of policy questions, and I have just touched on some, that need to be teased out, but they will not be because there will be no time. There has not been an effective debate either in the parliament or in the community on this issue. An amount of $16.2 billion in expenditure discussed in less than three hours—about $100 million every minute. That is just not good enough.
As my friend Senator Abetz has pointed out, guillotining a debate has now become standard practice. This week is the highlight. It is the culmination of the standard practice of guillotining debate in this parliament by the Labor Party and the Greens. I remember Mr Oakeshott's comments on the much vaunted new paradigm. What have we got instead? We have had the application of the guillotine more times than in the French Revolution. This is the reign of terror. Now the Prime Minister is the new Madam Defarge, with a nod and a wink at Senate despotism. The guillotine is being sharpened and it will be used ruthlessly throughout this week to stop debate. It is pathetic. The Labor Party is better than this.
An honourable senator interjecting—Not much.
I think they are, in fact. But, as you know, I can resist anything except temptation. On the question of the coalition applying the guillotine, on 8 December 2005, Senator Conroy said:
Once again we are seeing the results of the government's complete arrogance and, more importantly, complete incompetence in managing the business of the chamber. You can forgive a desire to get your bills through by the end of a session. What you cannot forgive is this sheer arrogance and incompetence.
That is the epitaph for a rotten government.
I rise to refute some of the wild claims made here today by those opposite. It is always a pleasure to follow Senator Mason, though he was somewhat quieter than normal! He talked about the need for education reform, and he is quite right. I know that those opposite do not support the Gonski reforms. But those of us who have joined with parents and their children at many rallies, meetings and conference know that this piece of legislation is long overdue. I will come back to that in a moment. The simple fact is that the majority in this place today voted to vote on these bills by the end of the week.
Senator Mason interjecting—
More interjections and more complaints. I have been here when in opposition. I saw how the Howard government ran the Senate. I saw them filibuster debates out and not allow proper scrutiny. They have form on this. They have a long record of abuse of the Senate when they were in government. But I do not want to go there. I want to talk about the legislation.
There are several pieces of legislation but I want to talk about the Australian Education Bill, what it means and why it is so important for it to be debated and passed this week before the parliament rises. The National Plan for Better Schools will give every child the individual help they need to reach their potential. It will lift teaching standards so that the best and brightest are in charge of our schools and classrooms. It will provide more information to parents and the community about school funding and performance. It will tackle school bullying so that every child can learn in a safe environment.
The Gonski reforms that the legislation is in part based on are so vitally important for our school children and, indeed, our future. I say to those opposite that they need to go out into the community and say why they could not do this today when we have already spent hours this morning debating a time-management motion. We had hours to do that. We also spent days listening to Senator Birmingham, who is a very excellent member of parliament, but do we have to listen to the same speech for days on one piece of legislation? The reason we had to do that was that the opposition wanted to come to this point. They wanted to say that the government was guillotining important pieces of legislation that they had been waiting to debate. But that is not true. It is all contrived so that they can come here, to this point, to make a faux argument about why they are concerned, but they are not concerned.
They opposed Gonski. I am unsure what their position is on the Constitution Alteration (Local Government) 2013—the referendum bill. I am happy for them to enlighten me. But I understand now that perhaps it will be a conscience vote on that issue. Some will support it and some will not. That is what the coalition has come to these days. They are so keen to be such small targets that they cannot even have a proper debate in their caucus anymore and come out with a position. They allow all sorts of things to be happening in the background. There are many, many important pieces of legislation here that the community wants us to progress, Gonski being one, the aged-care bills being another and the charities bill being another. These are important pieces of legislation that need to be voted on by the end of this week for the future of Australians. (Time expired)
I am so glad to see the minister whose answers we are taking note of today, Senator Conroy, come back into the chamber so I can remind him of his shameless hypocrisy in relation to the answers he gave to the questions asked by Senator Cormann, myself and Senator Mason. The minister, when answering the questions in relation to the guillotining of certain pieces of legislation, said that we as a coalition were shameless to stand here and ask the questions we did. He then referred to the debate on WorkChoices, stating that it had been gagged. But when you consider that WorkChoices was given a full day's hearing, that is nothing compared with the motion that the Labor Party, along with their little alliance partners—the doormats the Greens—voted to support in the Senate today.
In relation to the minister's hypocrisy, I too would like to read into the record some things the minister said when he was in opposition and the former Howard government was in office. This is what this minister said in relation to the guillotine: 'It is the worst abuse of parliamentary process in my 9½ years. What they are doing today has been a travesty of parliamentary democracy. What we are seeing now is an absolute farce, a guillotine. The ultimate expression of the Howard government's contempt for the Senate, however, can be seen in the government's willingness to gag debate in the Senate.' And the list of quotes goes on and on and on. But nothing that the minister was commenting on when the former Howard government was in power compares to what this Senate voted on today. As of this evening, we are going to be ramming through this place 55 pieces of legislation. There are certain pieces of legislation that are of a highly contentious nature, and the Senate is being given less than 15 minutes to debate them.
The government wants to ram to the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013—the bill I asked questions about today in the Senate—through the Senate because this, of all the bills that have been guillotined, has been solely designed by Minister O'Connor for his mates in the union. This is not good public policy. The government's own Office of Best Practice Regulation stated, in relation to the labour-market-testing aspects of this bill, that it was beholden on the government to conduct a regulatory impact statement. And do you know what the Prime Minister said to Minister O'Connor when he asked for an exemption? The Prime Minister said: 'No worries, mate. Don't worry about it, because we made a promise to the CFMEU, we made a promise to the TWU and we made a promise to the AWU that we would ram this bill through the other place and then we would get it into the Senate and ram it through the Senate.'
And that is exactly what this motion does. It gives us all of 15 minutes to debate what probably is one of the most contentious pieces of legislation to come before this parliament in the sitting period; we get 15 minutes. But, again, this is why: the Prime Minister herself, as we all know—despite the fact that she tells the people of Australia that the 457 system is being rorted—employs her chief spin doctor, Mr McTernan, on a 457 visa. The Prime Minister has been asked on several occasions under the Freedom of Information Act to produce the labour market testing in relation to Mr McTernan. Her office, on two occasions now, has asked for an extension in excess of 40 days. She has now asked for a further extension in excess of 40 days, which has been denied by the information commissioner. If the Prime Minister was dinkum about the 457 visa system, she would automatically come to this parliament and she would produce the labour market testing in relation to Mr McTernan. But she refuses to, and the only conclusion that can come from that is quite possibly that there was no labour market testing and the Prime Minister herself is guilty of a rort in the 457 program. That is why this legislation has been rammed through the parliament. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.