Thursday, 12 November 2015
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Answers to Questions
That the Senate take note of the answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today.
Firstly I will go to the response from Senator Brandis in relation to the questions that were put on the behaviour of the foreign minister, Julie Bishop. Julie Bishop—or, the Foreign Minister is Australia's pre-eminent diplomat.
Mr Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Twice now Senator Cameron has neglected to accord Ms Bishop the courtesy of using her proper name and her proper title, and he should be reminded to do so.
As you saw, I did correct myself. I do apologise if I infringed upon any of the conventions. But what we have with the foreign minister is a person who is supposed to be Australia's pre-eminent diplomat. Being the supposed pre-eminent diplomat means that you have to deal with other countries around the world, and you have to gain the trust of those countries. You cannot behave deceitfully, you cannot behave without any credibility and you cannot behave with hypocrisy. These are what the allegations are against the foreign minister by her own party.
Her own party now do not trust the foreign minister. There are members within the party who do not believe for one minute that the foreign minister was not totally aware of the coup that was taking place against the former Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott. It just stretches credibility to think that the explanation the foreign minister gave today has any substance or any truth. It is simply beyond belief. No wonder Senator—
I have been listening with particular care to what Senator Cameron has had to say. I would respectfully submit to you that Senator Cameron has crossed the line in relation to the standing order prohibiting reflections upon a member of another chamber. Senator Cameron is directly suggesting that Ms Bishop has engaged in deceitful conduct, and that is plainly against the standing orders.
I would ask you, Senator Cameron, to be careful in the words you use. There is a prohibition on reflecting in that way on members here and in the other place. I would ask you to continue but be very mindful of the standing order that has been brought to your attention.
Thank you, Mr Deputy President. I will take your wise words into account. The issue that faces the foreign minister now is the lack of trust that some of her own parliamentary colleagues have in her: the allegations of deceit that have been made against the foreign minister, and the lack of credibility that people are seeing the foreign minister has as a result of her involvement in the coup against the former Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott. It is no wonder that Senator Abetz and Senator Bernardi are outraged at the behaviour of the foreign minister in relation to the coup against the former Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott.
The reports in the newspaper today talk about simmering tensions in the coalition. These are not simmering tensions—it is the white-hot heat of hatred within the coalition. Today, Senator Abetz and Senator Bernardi did not even turn up to question time. I know what is going on. They are too busy crying on each other's shoulders—
I think we are aware of Senator Abetz's family circumstances. I am advised by the whip that he has leave to return home to deal with very distressful family circumstances. I would ask Senator Cameron to withdraw that reflection.
I would have no hesitation in withdrawing that. But, on the point of order, I understood it was always incumbent upon the Leader of the House to indicate the reasons for people seeking leave and being given leave. None of that was done today in relation to Senator Abetz. I just want to draw that to your attention. If there is any personal issue involved in Senator Abetz not being here, I do apologise.
As I indicated earlier, I will withdraw any comments in relation to Senator Abetz. I fully understand the situation and would not want to do anything that would add to any problems for Senator Abetz in relation to any personal circumstance. I want to make that clear.
The simmering tensions there are really white-hot. There is no doubt that it is a volcano ready to blow. The Liberals hate the National Party, the National Party hate the Liberals, and the Liberals hate each other. That is what we see here, day in and day out. This is a party that, on the surface, is trying to project—
I suppose, Senator Smith, that now and again you have to get out from under your mum's coat-tails and get into the real world! Get into the big, wide world. The reality is that the Libs hate the Nationals, the Nationals hate the Liberals and the Liberals hate each other. No mater whether or not your mum thinks that is a nice thing, that is the reality. The supporters of the former Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott, hate the PM clique. There is no doubt about that. There is a real hatred there. I say that when you send your chief of staff to engage in a plot against the Prime Minister you just cannot be trusted. It is deceitful. There is no credibility and it is hypocritical. (Time expired)
That would have to be the longest take note I have heard from Senator Cameron in my time in the Senate. I would like to start by putting on the record that I am a very, very strong coalitionist—a very, very strong coalitionist. That is a very big statement coming from a Western Australian Liberal, but, as I have said to my colleagues, the coalition is a very, very strong force in Australian politics, particularly because it gives conservatively-minded regional Australians two choices about who might represent them: the Liberal Party or the National Party. So I just wanted to say that I am a very, very strong coalitionist.
Senator Cameron had a unique opportunity available to him today. He could have talked about a number of issues. Opposition senators used the time in question time to talk about the National Broadband Network; they used the time to talk about the tax discussion that we are having; and they used the opportunity to talk about some contamination issues that are happening across northern New South Wales associated with RAAF base Williamtown. But, no, in this take note they did not want to talk about policy; they wanted to talk about scuttlebutt. They wanted personality discussions about what may or may not have happened with regard to the change of leadership. But I am not interested in that, and I dare say that many Australians are not interested. What I am interested in talking about is the tax discussion that we have been having over the last week or so in this country. It is a very, very important discussion, and lots of people have contributed to the debate so far—not just senators and members of the House of Representatives and the government but also people across the Australian community who identify with the Australian Labor Party.
I want to share with you what Labor parliamentarians and, indeed, some Labor past and present premiers have been saying about the tax discussion and debate. There is, for most of us in this country—the business community and those who want to have an informed and intelligent debate about the future of our country—an agreement that these things are worthy of discussion. But those people who sit on the other side who call themselves Labor senators want to put their heads in the sand and they do not want to debate some of the challenges that are facing our country. Instead, they want to stick to personalities over policy.
I think it is worth putting on the record what some Labor premiers have said in recent times about the importance of a debate, a discussion, around the GST. What does Labor South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill have to say? He said on Adelaide radio that we need all of these things on the table. In reference to the tax debate he said:
We do need all of these things on the table. I think there is a sensible discussion about this. I will be encouraging all of my colleagues to talk about it.
That is what the South Australian Labor Premier said about the tax debate. What did the former Labor Premier of New South Wales, Kristina Keneally, say? In the Sydney Morning Herald, just this week, she said:
The GST is obviously part of that mix, though Labor shouldn't give in to a simplistic view that increasing consumption tax fixes everything.
That is a very, very true statement.
An opposition senator interjecting—
I will come to my own comments around tax in a moment. What did the former West Australian Premier, Geoff Gallop, have to say? Earlier this week he said that he has been on the record for some time talking about the need to increase the GST, and said, 'I think the time has come to take that step.' What did Peter Beattie, the former Queensland Premier, have to say? He said:
This extra five per cent has to go to health and education—
the five per cent being, of course, the suggested or discussed option that might be available to people in terms of raising the GST—
I will have trouble supporting an increase beyond 10 per cent unless it goes to service delivery for the states.
The point is that in this country people are debating the important issue of tax reform, but Labor senators want to ignore the debate and want to talk down opportunities for reform.
It is clear: you cannot have jobs growth and you cannot have economic growth without tackling the important issue of tax reform. I would like to add my bit to the debate—a part of the debate that has been missed so far. The best way to generate jobs and to generate economic growth is to reform GST distribution. GST distribution must be part of any overall solution, any part of tax reform, if Australia is to proceed. I have written to the Prime Minister expressing my views on that, but that is a debate for another time. (Time expired)
I rise to take note of answers—and, in particular, on the subject of the GST. In September 2013 that lot over there were elected to govern. We have Senator Macdonald saying that there has been no increase in the GST discussed in the party room and that, to his knowledge, there has been no increase in the GST discussed in the cabinet. Yet, over there, somehow or other, there is now a debate on the GST. We never brought it up; it never came from the Labor Party. Now they are trotting out all of the Labor premiers who, they say, want an increase in the GST. I remind the other side of Prime Minister Keating's comment: 'Never get in the way of a bucketful of money and a heap of premiers. If they figure there is a bucketful of money to spend, they will be for it.' I know Premier Weatherill, the great Premier of South Australia—
A government senator interjecting—
You cannot take anything away from his contribution in South Australia. He is doing an eminently good job. But his view on the GST is not the federal Labor Party's view on the GST. For that lot over there who were elected to govern and who choose to govern by quoting Labor premiers and ex-Labor premiers who are commentators on Sky News and portray that as policy is completely beyond me. Where is Malcolm Turnbull on the GST? Why does he not have the fortitude, the agility, the nimbleness or the innovative wherewithal to start the agenda? Where is he? We hear things like: 'I'll make sure it is fair, whatever happens, but don't let me be caught talking about it, just in case the focus groups do not like it, just in case it is not electorally popular. But I'll have this debate; the debate will happen.' In all seriousness, the Australian Council of Social Services commissioned the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling, and that is where all of this stuff needs to be put into perspective. An increase in the GST has a much bigger impact on low- and modest-income households and the Labor Party makes no apology for being in their corner—no apology for representing the people who will be impacted the most by an increase or a broadening of the GST. That is where we live, that is our heartland and we will stay there.
There may well be attempts to portray fairness and compensation, but, at the end of the day, if you want to increase the GST it has to be to increase revenue. Why would you take the pain just to be cost-neutral? Why would you do that? How can it be cost-neutral for those on fixed incomes, for self-funded retirees or for pensioners? How could it be cost-neutral for them? It can only be on average cost-neutral. Individuals will always be disadvantaged. Who has not had a water bill—the minister for water is on the other side of the chamber—in recent times that has not gone up? Who has a water bill that has remained the same? There are the pensioners who are now not able to use as much water in their gardens, and you are going to put more GST on water, fresh food and education. What if it were broadened to include all of those things? We know that it would be regressive, with people on lower incomes paying proportionally more of their incomes on those essentials. We know that for a fact.
Where is the Prime Minister out there leading the debate? He is not leading the debate. Someone is talking to the media. It does not get on the front page of The Australian without it coming from somewhere. We all know what the media contract is: 'I'll leak you some information in return for a good story about the government,' and that is what is happening every day.
That is the way the Liberal Party operates. We see it today with superannuation. Out they go; their media contract is working: leak it out sideways and then bag up a couple of Labor Premiers and some commentators and say, 'They're in support of it. Why aren't you?' We are not in support of it because it is regressive. It will impact harder on poorer people and they will pay a greater proportionate share of it. It is a regressive tax which will be resisted.
It is with great pleasure that I rise today to speak about some of the ridiculous comments that have come from the other side in taking note following question time today, although I must say that I was pleased that Senator Gallacher decided to talk about something that is of great interest to the Australian public, and that is the debate about what our tax regime needs to look like into the future. Before I go to that, I would like to make a couple of comments about the contribution that was made by Senator Cameron. It was quite distressing to have to listen to the ridiculous obsession about petty, unnecessary, outdated politics when, as I said, it would have been quite good for us to be able to talk about the issues that are really important to the Australian economy and to the Australian people. I would love to have a debate about the real issues that matter. If you look at the real issues that matter, the one that Senator Gallacher raised about the taxation debate is certainly one of them.
I have to say that the level of desperation in the comments that were made by Senator Cameron were almost palpable. He referred to simmering tensions being white-hot tensions in the Liberal ranks. I can say that, in the 3½ years since I have been in this parliament, I have never felt a more cohesive and coordinated and good and healthy relationship existing, not just amongst members of the Liberal Party in this place but also amongst our very good and close friends and colleagues in the National Party. We are working together. My mother had a saying—it is not just Senator Smith's mother who told him things—and it was: I think the man doth protest too much. Maybe he was just reflecting some of the tensions that are possibly occurring within the Labor Party at the moment and he thought it was a really good idea to try to point the finger at us because we are doing quite well. Whilst we all know that you do not ever take too much notice of the polls, because the only poll that really counts is the one on election day, perhaps Senator Cameron's comments were a reflection of the fact that the polls have been looking so extraordinarily good for us and so extraordinarily bad for the Labor Party. Possibly the kind of rubbish that he went on about in taking note today is the reason the Australian public are getting heartily sick of the comments and actions of the opposition.
I go to Senator Gallacher's comments in relation to the tax debate. I believe that the coalition also believes that the Australian public is quite grown-up enough to have a debate about tax reform. I cannot remember seeing anywhere that anybody said the GST was going to be raised to 15 per cent or 20 per cent, or that there would be any rise in the GST. We are merely putting on the table a series of options so that the Australian public and the people who have an important role to play in this debate have the opportunity to be able to talk about the best, most effective and most efficient tax regime for Australia to go forward and for our economy to grow, so that we make sure that we minimise the amount of intrusion that we put into the economy and we can have a prosperous economy into the future. For us not to have this debate is a retrograde step. If we do not have the debate about tax reform, we are missing a great opportunity. There is a lovely term that we often hear from the other side and from the Greens: adaptive management. It is about making sure that we constantly look at things to make sure that we are doing the best in applying, implementing and changing so that we get the best possible outcomes for Australia.
Senator Gallacher said that there had been comments that nothing had been discussed in the party room or that nothing had been discussed in cabinet in relation to this. I am not sure where everybody over there has been living for the last 12 months, but I have heard so many times that a taxation white paper is about to be delivered about discussing the options of reform in the taxation space. To say that there is no tax debate on the agenda is completely ludicrous.
The GST is but one component of a broader debate about taxation reform in this country.
We need to take a bit more of a grown-up approach, instead of the stupid, scaremongering, childish behaviour that we get from those opposite—and particularly from Senator Lines, who has been interjecting. The GST is just one element of Australia's tax regime. It is a very easy one to try and scare the public with—like saying we want to increase tax rates and the like. It is very easy to scaremonger. It is not just us who are saying that it is time for the debate; the public wants one too. (Time expired)
I want to make some comments about the response given to me during question time today by Senator Brandis about the filling of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's position. You would know better than anyone, Mr Deputy President, the game we regularly play at Senate estimates concerning time frames, where you ask when something will happen and are told it will be 'shortly', it will be 'soon' or it is 'imminent'. I was really pleased to hear that we have had movement from the Attorney-General, compared to what he said two weeks ago in Senate estimates. Today he told us that the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's position would be filled shortly—in fact, I think he said was 'very shortly'. We have had real movement. It is going to be 'soon'. I welcome that announcement from the Attorney that it is going to be soon.
But why has it not happened sooner? We know it is complex and difficult to fill such a wonderfully necessary position in our system, but we also know that Ms Broderick, in her professionalism, had given the department and the government 12 months notice of the fact that she would not be seeking any further renewal of her contract—in fact, that contract had already been extended. So for 12 months we had known exactly the time that Ms Broderick was going to leave the position, and she left the position over two months ago. When we had the series of farewells to celebrate the marvellous work that Ms Broderick did in the position, there was a clear question from all the women and men who attended these functions as to when the position would be filled. We were also deeply interested to know by whom it would be filled, but we were most clearly interested in knowing how quickly this position could be filled.
Over many years, the deep importance of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner—in our Human Rights Commission, in the human rights field and also in the message to the community about how seriously our government takes the issues of gender equity in the community—has been known. There has never been a more important time for us to focus on the issues of gender equity in our community. We know, and the government has admitted, that this is an important position. The government has said that the performance of this role is important in policy. In fact, at the UN, when we review our actions around equity, the work of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner has been singled out on several occasions for the value of the contribution and the importance of having this role in place in our governmental process. We also know that, only late last year at the G20, Australia made a commitment to ensure that women in employment would be a high priority for our nation, amidst international commitments for all nations, and said that we had the infrastructure in place to make this occur, including the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's work. In particular, as I mentioned in my questions to Senator Brandis, the groundbreaking, innovative—and I do not know whether it is agile or nimble, but nonetheless—work of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner with the Male Champions of Change has been lauded throughout this country and also internationally. It has introduced the innovation of getting the leaders of our economy and our businesses together and challenging them to make changes in their own operations and across industry to improve the role of women and to give them opportunities for career progression, and to look within themselves to see what obstacles now exist in the business area. This has been driven, nurtured and championed by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. There is no more important time to have this job filled than now, to ensure that this work can continue.
It is important that the position be filled soon. It is important that that commitment be made known in our community. We look forward to welcoming and working with the new Sex Discrimination Commissioner. I was only regretful that, when we celebrated the work of Ms Broderick, we could not, at the same time, welcome the new commissioner, that most valuable person, into the new job and say thank you to them for taking up the position and thank you to the government for filling it.
Question agreed to.