Senate debates

Monday, 1 December 2014



7:30 pm

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Assistant Minister for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the order of consideration of government business orders of the day for the remainder of today be as follows:

No. 3 Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2014

No. 2 Tax and Superannuation Laws Amendment (2014 Measures No. 6) Bill 2014

No. 5 Australian Citizenship Amendment (Intercountry Adoption) Bill 2014

No. 1 Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill 2014

No. 6 Social Security Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Job Seeker Compliance Framework) Bill 2014

No. 4 Parliamentary Entitlements Legislation Amendment Bill 2014.

7:31 pm

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

Omit all words after "That—", substitute:

"Government Business Order of the Day No. 25 relating to the Omnibus Repeal Day (Spring 2014) Bill 2014 to be called on immediately and have precedence over all other Government Business until determined."

This amendment will give precedence to the Omnibus Repeal Day (Spring 2014) Bill 2014. It will give the omnibus bill precedence until determined.

This is a bill about the efficient working of government and the efficient allocation of resources. It is a bill that goes to the heart of the debate about not wasting taxpayers' money. This bill amends around 30 acts, but after last week's disgraceful slur against the workers of the ASC by the Minister for Defence, it is clear that this bill needs to be amended at least one more time. We need to rearrange business so that the omnibus repeal bill can be debated immediately and the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act amended. It has to be amended so that our new submarine fleet cannot be built without a competitive tender process including a funded project definition study. This project is too important to the future of our nation. We cannot afford to choose our subs on the basis of some preordained sweetheart deal.

Let me quote from the second reading debate on this bill in the other place. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister said that the omnibus bill is about 'making Australia a more attractive place to invest.' He also said 'it is about ensuring good governance'. I can think of few issues where good governance and proper accountability would be more important than it is for our Future Submarine project. We simply cannot allow personal bias to influence such an important decision. It is an acquisition that will deliver one of our most strategically significant defence capabilities and more than $20 billion will be spent on it. There can be nothing more important, when it comes to public governance, performance and accountability, than ensuring that our new submarines are not chosen on a whim.

The defence minister and the Abbott government simply cannot be trusted when it comes to Australia's future submarines. This is one of the largest defence acquisitions the Commonwealth will ever make. All of us in this place have a responsibility to ensure that our new submarine fleet is the very best it can be and is delivered at the best price for taxpayers. Only a competitive tender will achieve this.

This government has had more than twelve months to listen to the experts. They all say that a competitive tender with a project definition study needs to be undertaken. The defence minister has ignored the experts and broken his promise to build the submarines in Adelaide. When it comes to the Future Submarine project, the Minister for Defence has shown his personal bias. He said he would not trust the ASC to build a canoe—that makes it clear that he should not be trusted with this vital acquisition. He has shown he is not interested in government accountability or ensuring Australia gets the best submarine at the best price to the taxpayer.

Importantly, Labor's plans for the omnibus bill also put into effect the first recommendation of the recent Senate report into the Future Submarine project. Expert after expert told the Senate that we cannot be sure we are getting the best submarine without a competitive tender. This included experts like Dr John White, whom the minister commissioned to write a report on our air warfare destroyers—a report the minister is now keeping secret. Dr White told the Senate:

There are significant technical, commercial and capability gap risks invoked by prematurely and unilaterally committing to a preferred overseas, sole-source supplier.

This is what we risk if the government ignores the experts and does not undertake a competitive tender including a project definition study.

Since the election we have seen too much secrecy surround this decision, although we have had leak after leak from this government making wild and distorted claims about the cost of Australian built submarines and the capacity of Australian industry to deliver. These leaks have speculated that the cost of the submarines built in Australia could be anywhere from $36 billion to $80 billion. This speculation continued up until as late as just a few weeks ago, when the minister said:

… an upfront acquisition cost of about $40 billion is going to play out to something like $80 billion over the term of the program.

This is happening even though submarine manufacturers from all over the world are telling the minister that they can be built in Australia for around $20 billion. ASC told the Senate estimates last week that submarines that meet these needs can be built in Australia for between $18 billion and $24 billion. Did the minister rejoice when he heard that the Australian submarine builder can match the prices of their international competitors? I would have thought it was good news. No. He went on radio to play the man and not the ball, once again questioning the ability of Australian industry. He tried to humiliate the acting CEO of the ASC, claiming that he only sustained submarines. Once again, this hapless minister was wrong. He was criticising someone who had built and sustained submarines for 25 years. This ill-tempered remark by the minister, unfortunately, however, was only the start.

No-one will forget the disgraceful claim in the Senate last week that he would not trust the ASC to build a canoe—an outrageous attack by a minister under pressure who has been abandoned by his colleagues. More than this, we have also seen a scurrilous campaign from the defence minister to undermine the experience and capability of Australian submarine builders and shipbuilders. The minister called the air warfare destroyer project 'a disgraceful mess of a program'. When the minister excluded Australian companies from the tender for the new navy supply ships, he said it was because they were 'beyond the capacity of Australia to produce competitively'. He was not always this glum. In May last year, when he was in Adelaide campaigning for votes, he said:

… there is only one place that has all of the expertise that's necessary to complete one of the most complex, difficult and costly capital works projects that Australia can undertake. It's ASC here in Adelaide. We believe that all of the expertise that is necessary for that project is here.

That was the minister when he was chasing votes in Adelaide 12 months ago. The minister was talking about the same men and women that he is now throwing under the bus. Labor believes that this is an industry that is capable of doing all this again and should be given the opportunity to compete for the future submarines.

In government, Labor saw the need for the future submarines and worked to address it. We allocated $214 million to studies and analysis on what our needs were and what technologies were available. We investigated and ruled out the MOTS option, including the Soryu, for the future submarine project. And guess what. After more than 12 months of intensive investigation on this subject, guess what the minister confirmed just a few weeks ago. He finally reached the conclusion that we cannot take a MOTS option. After 12 wasted months, the minister, in a speech to the Submarine Institute conference, came to the same conclusion that Labor came to 12 months ago. Then he blames us for the delay. We selected the US AN/BYG-1 combat system and the mark 48 torpedoes. We began working towards establishing a land based test facility centred in Adelaide. We established the Future Submarine Industry Skills Plan. We did all of this because we knew that, in order to avoid a submarine capability gap, we needed to work calmly and methodically to understand what capability the ADF needed and how we could acquire it at the best possible price.

Despite all of this, the minister claims that nothing has been done and that there is no time now for a competitive tender process. The Senate inquiry into navy shipbuilding has recently heard that there is still sufficient time, despite the procrastination from this minister and the gall of trying to blame us while he has done nothing for 12 months except make the same decision we had already made. There is still sufficient time, despite the procrastination by this minister, to undertake a proper competitive tender process with a funded project definition study, and a capability gap is avoidable. Commodore Paul Greenfield told the Senate:

If government wants to avoid a capability gap, the timing of delivery and the rate of delivery can be arranged so that the new submarines can be introduced in lockstep with the Collins submarines as they are withdrawn from service.

In May last year, we all heard the now defence minister famously stand outside the ASC in Adelaide and say:

We will deliver those submarines from right here at ASC in South Australia.

People in Adelaide took the minister at his word, and he has let them down. Senator Edwards, Senator Fawcett, Senator Ruston and Senator Birmingham, this is your big chance. This is your opportunity to put your money where your mouth is and support South Australia. By supporting this amendment, you will ensure that there is a proper competitive tender process with a funded project definition study—something most of the Liberal senators from South Australia are on the record as supporting. You have said that this is what you believe should happen. Now is the chance for you to prove that what you have been saying is what you are going to do.

The Senate inquiry has shown that, if we hold a proper process, which considers the vital role that the Australian industry plays in national security, these submarines will be built in Australia.

The education minister—when he is not running a million miles from the minister—has said that he is losing sleep over jobs being lost at ASC. Dear oh dear.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

He should start a petition!

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

He should start a petition against the government.

Senator Sterle interjecting

Oh, he has already done that. No, you are right. If he could just get that petition going! But, more importantly, perhaps he could vote for this amendment when it goes back to the other place. When it goes back to the other place, the Minister for Education can put his money where his mouth is. If the government really wants proper process, if the government wants to ensure efficiency and accountability, then it should support this rearrangement of government business. The government should support a competitive tender process for our future submarines, and now it has the chance to put it in place by supporting this amendment and by supporting the amendment to the red tape deregulation omnibus bill.

7:45 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

This attempt to amend the government's motion to rearrange business demonstrates one of the most blatant and significant breaches of faith that I have seen in this place in my 10 years. Let me give the chamber some background to this. Senator Peris, you might not know this, so I think it is important that I share this. Earlier today the Leader of the Government in the Senate convened a meeting of leaders, whips and managers to discuss the program and sitting hours for the remainder of this week. At that meeting it was determined that a list of legislation would be circulated to all parties—Labor, the Greens, the crossbenchers—and that there would be a resumption of that meeting at 7.30 tonight.

Parallel to that, I had discussions with the manager of opposition business in this place asking if the opposition would be happy for business to be rearranged at 7.30 and to commence with the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Amendment Bill 2014, which I know Senator Carr is keen to progress, Tax and Superannuation Laws Amendment (2014 Measures No. 6) Bill 2014 and the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Intercountry Adoption) Bill 2014. Senator Moore consulted with her colleagues, as is often the case with these sorts of matters, and came back and said, yes, that was supported. I also contacted the Australian Greens' Senator Siewert and put the same proposition to her, and she said, yes, that was accepted. The proposition was then circulated; the motion that Senator Nash moved was circulated to crossbench senators. There was agreement across the chamber as to what the rearrangement would be at 7.30.

There was also agreement that there would be a leaders, whips and managers meeting at 7.30. I took the opposition at their word in good faith because we need to be able to trust each other on these sorts of discussions. I took them in good faith. And so I attended, at 7.30, the leaders, whips and managers meeting only to be told by Senator Wong: 'By the way, we're going to seek to rearrange the business ourselves. We're going to seek to bring on another bill.' I get down to the chamber because obviously I cannot continue in the leaders, whips and managers meeting at the time agreed by all parties because of what is happening in this place. I come down here and I see the text of Senator Conroy's amendment to the motion to rearrange business, and I see that Senator Conroy has circulated amendments to the omnibus repeal bill, which he seeks to bring on. So you can forgive me for being a little disappointed, a little confused and a little perplexed. I would have thought that the decent and honourable thing would have been, when I put the rearrangement proposition to the opposition, if they had other plans, then maybe not to share their plans with me but to say, 'No, we don't support that rearrangement'. That is one thing.

Another thing, in parallel: they undertook this stunt at 7.30, when the leaders, the managers, the whips and all the crossbenchers were gathered together at 7.30—meeting at a prearranged time; meeting in a spirit of goodwill and cooperation; meeting on a basis of good faith to work out how the business of this place, by agreement, would proceed. What do the opposition do? They take advantage of that good faith; they take advantage of the very protocols that this place operates on—that is, that you can at least have a leaders, whips and managers meeting from time to time to talk about what is possible, what can be agreed upon.

I have never in my 10 years in this place, Senator Macdonald, seen a situation where the opposition not only breach an undertaking they gave to support a rearrangement of business—to bring on Nos 3, 2 and 5 that I have referred to already—but also, and even worse than that, seek to use the cover of a leaders, whips and managers meeting at 7.30. They were seeking to use that as a cover; they were seeking to use the fact that all of the principals of this place were otherwise occupied as a cover for this stunt. This is poor. This is more than ordinary, this is appalling, and it goes to undermine the basis of trust. Yes, we disagree on many things and, yes, we have robust debates, but your word has got to be your word. When you say to someone from the Labor Party or to someone from the Greens or to someone from the crossbenches, 'Will you support this particular motion?' and they say, 'Yes', then I think we should be able to take that to the bank. And the reverse should be true. If you undertake to support a particular proposition and we say, 'Yes', you should be able to take it to the bank. There has to be basic trust between the party leaders, between the managers and between the whips. This place cannot function if you pull these sorts of stunts, if you ignore the undertaking that was given to me to support our rearrangements, if you use the cover of a leaders, whips and managers meeting to pull this stunt. I am sorry, it is not good enough while that is happening for Senator Wong to say, 'By the way, this is happening now,' and feign ignorance about the agreements that had been reached between parties. This is one of the most appalling things I have seen in my time.

You might not necessarily share your tactics and your strategy, but you do not use the cover of leaders, managers and whips meetings and you certainly do not give an undertaking that you have no intention of fulfilling. What you should do when a proposition is put by me to rearrange business is simply say, 'We do not agree with your proposition to rearrange business.' You do not have to share your tactics. You can just say, 'No, we do not support your proposition,' and then you can do what you do. That is what you should have done.

You should not have used the leaders, whips and managers meeting at 7.30, which was gathering in the spirit of good faith to see legislatively what is possible in the remainder of this sitting week—to see in terms of hours what is possible and what can be agreed. I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt to some of those opposite that they did not know that the leaders and whips meeting was happening at 7.30, but Senator Wong certainly did. I give the benefit of the doubt to some of those opposite that they did not know the discussions that took place between me and Senator Moore, but Senator Moore did and Senator Wong would have.

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Where is Senator Moore?

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Where is Senator Wong?

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Moore and Senator Wong are in the leaders and whips meeting in Senator Abetz's office, which of course I had to leave to come and see what was happening here in the chamber. Senator Macdonald has been here longer than possibly only one other person. Senator Macdonald plays his politics tough and hard, but Senator Macdonald is someone whose word you can trust: if he tells you he is going to do something, you know he will do it and, if he tells you he is not going to do something, you know he is not going to do it. The same goes for many colleagues around this chamber. I can see from the looks on the faces of some opposite that what I am saying in relation to the leaders and whips meeting at 7.30 and what I am saying about my discussions with Senator Moore come as a bit of a shock and a surprise to them, because I know for some of those opposite it is not the way they play politics. They are people of their word.

Senator Kim Carr interjecting

Take my word for it, Senator Carr, as we speak there is a leaders and whips meeting happening in Senator Abetz's office. Senator Wong is there. All the crossbenchers are there. Senator Milne is there. Senator Siewert is there. It is a matter of record and a matter of fact that that is happening. I did discuss with Senator Siewert and Senator Moore the rearrangement of business, to which there was agreement. I honestly cannot believe I am in this situation. A little part at the back of my mind was saying, 'Maybe you should head down to the chamber at 7.30 just in case they try something, just in case they pull something,' but I relied on the fact that there are some basic rules and some basic courtesies that apply in this place. There is a base level of trust that operates in this place.

I am almost speechless at what has transpired here. While we are here debating an amendment to a rearrangement motion which seeks to upend the program, the leaders, managers and whips meeting is taking place in Senator Abetz's office with Senator Wong to discuss how we can make this place work, how we can agree upon the way to proceed for the week ahead. Of course the opposition have the right to procedurally pull stunts, make points and highlight issues that they think are important. When we were in opposition we did as well, but there is a base level of trust here. Do not say you are going to do something when you are not. Do not agree to something that you are not intending to support. And I say again: do not use the leaders, managers and whips meeting as a cover—while everyone is away, while everyone is out—to put this on.

There have to be certain protocols and certain standards. There has to be a certain level of trust for this place to operate. I am more than disappointed; I am appalled and surprised. I ask those senators opposite to reconsider the path they are going down. I ask the crossbenchers and the Australian Greens to not support this breach of faith, to not support this breach of trust. If this place is to work, there have to be standards. We must be able to rely on each other's word when it is properly and solemnly given, otherwise this place cannot work.

7:58 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I cannot believe what I am hearing. I have been here for a very long time and I have seen some robust debates and some surprise tactics, but not this approach of agreeing to something and then completely disregarding it and going the other way at a time when those who should be leading in this chamber are otherwise engaged in an arrangement that is meant to make sure the chamber operates properly. I call upon the crossbenchers to support what Senator Fifield has said, but of course none of them are here to hear this debate. Why are they not here to hear the debate? Because they are in the meeting that is being held to determine what is happening. The Greens, instead of having their respected whip, Senator Siewert, here and their leader, have left a couple of flunkies to try and—I am not sure why they are here.

As I say, I have been here a long, long time and I have never seen this. You can understand it coming from the likes of Senator Cameron, who supported my namesake in New South Wales politics, the other Ian Macdonald; Senator Dastyari, who was the leader of the ALP in Sydney at the time that Eddie Obeid and my namesake were handing out their favours to all and sundry. You would sort of expect that from them. But you would not expect it from the person who is supposedly the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate—a person who is only in this place because of people who made commitments and who actually then stood by their commitments. The commitment was, of course, that another senator won the ballot in the Labor Party in South Australia and was top of the ticket, but a deal was done and people stood by their deal. That is not right, Senator Bullock?

Senator Bullock interjecting

It is a shame it happened, I agree with you. I would have preferred the guy who came in No. 1 from the 'Shoppies', as I understand. He should have been No. 1. There you go. I do not want to delay the chamber. Suffice it to say that I would certainly hope that when the crossbenchers come back on the division—when Senator Siewert and the acting leader of the Palmer United Party come back from the normal arrangement that is done, then perhaps this amendment will be defeated, as it should be.

Just before I do sit down I just want to congratulate the President, the Deputy President, the Speaker and Senator Brandis for a wonderful event which happened out the front. It was all about the spirit of Christmas. There were people from Opera Australia and the Woden Valley Youth Choir. It was wonderful.

Senator Dastyari interjecting

Senator Cameron interjecting

I didn't see any of you people there, I might say.

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

They were plotting in the corners!

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

They were plotting in the corners. It was a wonderful event and I congratulate the Presiding Officers and the Attorney for it. It is just such a pity that none of the Labor Party members—one of your House of Reps colleagues was there, I must say. It was a wonderful event and while I am on my feet I just want to congratulate the President, the Speaker and the Attorney for putting on this wonderful event. This sort of game goes on. It is bad enough at the best of times, but when there is supposed to be a spirit of goodwill and honesty and truth around, this is just absolutely incredible. As I say, I will mark this down. I have been here 24 years. I have never, never seen where an agreement between leaders and whips is thrown aside in such a cavalier fashion. Senator Carr is going to jump to his feet. I hope that should really extend the spirit of Christmas.

8:03 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the question be put.

Senator Ludlam interjecting

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am advised that the question has been put. I apologise, Senator Ludlam. I did not see you on your feet. The question is that the question be put.

Question agreed to.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendment moved by Senator Conroy be agreed to.

8:11 pm

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion, as amended, be agreed to.

A division having been called and the bells being rung—

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr President, I raise a point of order. I wonder whether Senator Lazarus has been paired and whether that is the reason for the vote being the way it was.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

That is a matter for the whips, and that will be recorded on the telling sheets. There is no point of order.