Monday, 18 April 2016
I want to pay tribute to the Governor-General, both in his role as Governor-General and in his very distinguished former career. I have to say how embarrassed I was as a member of this Senate to see the way that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate dealt with and acted in the presence of the Governor-General. I am pleased to see media reports that the Leader of the Opposition has at last had the courage to discipline the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in this chamber about his inappropriate, almost inexplicable and discourteous activities this morning. I might say that there was another loud member of the Labor Party from Western Australia who was as equally disgusting in their approach to a representative of the Queen of Australia and to someone who is so very much a significant part of the workings of a democracy in this country.
The Governor-General, as we all know—as does the Queen in the United Kingdom—acts on the advice of his ministers. Whether Senator Conroy likes the advice or not that the government gives is one matter, and he is quite entitled in the political process to disagree with, attack and disdain the government and the ministers; but he should not do that on a personal basis to a distinguished Australian who is carrying out his role as the head of the Commonwealth of Australia. I am pleased that for once Mr Shorten, who has not shown a great deal of spine in too much else, has disciplined Senator Conroy for the outrageous and disrespectful approach that he took this morning. I would certainly hope that the President of the Senate, as the presiding officer—and perhaps yourself as well, Mr Deputy President—will counsel Senator Conroy on his behaviour. Perhaps it is a matter that actually should be referred to the Privileges Committee of this chamber because it is very much an attack on the whole process we have in this democracy and in this chamber.
I have a number of things that I would like to comment upon in relation to the Governor-General's speech and as part of the address-in-reply, but I think at the outset it is appropriate that we note with regret the approach of a senior member of the alternative government who cannot simply understand the role of the Governor-General and who cannot control himself when it comes to distinguishing political attacks.
Sitting suspended from 18:30 to 19:30
Before the break, I was just—would you believe it?—congratulating Mr Shorten, who has never shown a great deal of spine for anything. But he had the spine to reprimand and counsel his deputy leader in the Senate on the atrocious conduct of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate in the face of the Governor-General, a distinguished Australian who should not be personally attacked, no matter what you think about what he says in these formal speeches. Clearly, the Governor-General, under the Westminster system, talks about the advice he is given by his elected ministers. It is appropriate for Senator Conroy, Senator Lines and others to attack the government and to attack government ministers. But to start attacking the Governor-General, not only a person holding the highest position in the land but a man with a very, very distinguished personal record of service to this nation, is unforgivable. I am pleased that Mr Shorten was able to discipline his deputy leader in the Senate.
The Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate has form, particularly when it comes to men in uniform. I remember well when I was chairing a Senate estimates committee and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate attacked Lieutenant General Campbell, who was doing his job, as he had been instructed to do by the government. The deputy leader of the opposition made a personal attack on him, for which, as chairman of the committee, I am proud to say I demanded an apology or the Senate committee would adjourned. I am pleased that Mr Shorten has shown a rare backbone in disciplining the deputy leader in relation to that.
The Governor-General's speech, to which we are giving the address-in-reply, dealt with the building and construction industry bills. That has clearly been dealt with by the Senate now, regrettably, to that conclusion, but we will leave it to the people of Australia to see whether they will support political parties and independents who support thuggery and disrespect—not disrespect; absolute breach of the law—or whether they will support a party who believes in industrial fairness and equity and the rule of law. That is now a matter for the people of Australia on 2 July, so I will not spend too much time on it. As I said, it is not a matter for this chamber anymore; it is a matter for the people of Australia. I feel confident that, as in the last election, they will, in the next election, indicate that they do not believe any group of people—in this case, the CFMEU—should be able to get away with the thuggery that we have evidence of. It is not just people telling me or talking about it in a Senate committee but evidence at a royal commission when there was a finding by the royal commissioner, who is a distinguished judge without blemish.
I want to go on to the other matter that the Governor-General mentioned in his address to the joint houses, which is the Road Safety Remuneration Act that is currently in place thanks to the Labor government, the Greens, Senator Xenophon and, in the other place, people like Mr Bob Katter. I do not always agree with Senator Xenophon. I am still waiting for his no-poker-machines campaign to show some results. He was elected on that basis to the South Australian parliament, and I do not notice any fewer poker machines in South Australia. He got to this chamber on the same platform, and I do not notice any fewer poker machines in Australia. But Senator Xenophon had the good grace and decency at the rally this morning to get up amongst those truckies, those independent family organisations, and admit that he had supported the legislation that now puts their businesses in jeopardy. He indicated he was wrong and he sought their forgiveness, as I recall what he said this morning. So, whilst I disagree with Senator Xenophon on many things, I do acknowledge that this morning he admitted that he was wrong in supporting that legislation along with the Greens and the Labor Party. But he sought forgiveness and indicated he was now aware of just what a terrible piece of legislation that was.
Mr Acting Deputy President Williams, I will digress there by just indicating, without embarrassing you, what a significant role you have played in bringing that issue to the forefront. I congratulate you and my Queensland colleague Senator O'Sullivan in bringing forward the first piece of legislation designed to get rid of that tribunal legislation. Senator O'Sullivan was the first to indicate that he had had the Senate office draft a piece of legislation to abolish the tribunal by getting rid of that act. Senator O'Sullivan made his views known, and I am pleased that the government went from delaying it, which the government at the time understood they had a majority for, to moving to abolish it, because, again, the government has been given assurance from the crossbenchers that they will support the government's legislation to do that. So, congratulations to you, Mr Deputy President Williams—I know you have tabled a petition from thousands of people alerting Australia to the inequities of this piece of legislation. As I say, congratulations to you and to my Queensland colleague Senator O'Sullivan. In a backhanded way, I have also complimented Senator Xenophon for understanding the error of his ways some time ago.
That is not the case with Mr Bob Katter, the Independent member for Kennedy up in my area of North Queensland. Mr Katter was holding rallies recently railing against this legislation. Yet, when it went through the House of Representatives he supported it. He may say, 'Have a look at the HansardI was not there; I did not vote.' That is right—he rarely votes on anything. But he was paired with the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, now the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Julie Bishop—and the Liberal Party and the National Party, back when the Labor Party and the Greens and Independents brought that legislation forward, were totally opposed to that; they voted against it. Ms Bishop was absent overseas, no doubt, as she often was as the shadow foreign minister and as she is today as the foreign minister. She was totally opposed to it, so she was paired with someone. Who was she paired with? The honourable Mr Bob Katter, the Independent member for Kennedy. That means Mr Katter had indicated to the whips of all parties that he was going to support the legislation, and so he was paired with someone who was totally opposed to it.
Time moves on. Mr Katter was totally in favour of the legislation a couple of weeks ago—he was photographed in the Townsville Bulletin saying, 'We are all against this, we are with family drivers.' Well where was he three years ago when this legislation was passed by the Labor Party, the Greens and the Independents? I understand there is another senator in this chamber who was totally supportive of this bill and the tribunal and, although he was not in the parliament at the time, I understand he had made public utterances that he was in favour of the tribunal and all it stood for. I might have got this wrong and if I have I hope that the senator corrects me. I am not going to name him but he will know who I am talking about. He was totally in favour of the tribunal and all it stood for, and he was supportive of the TWU. Today I was at a rally and I saw this senator being lauded for his opposition. Like Senator Xenophon, it is good if he has changed his mind. He did not confess to that, as Senator Xenophon did, but it is an interesting insight into how things work when people have one view when they are elected and then change their view. I am pleased that people change their view—I congratulate people who change their view. I congratulate people who will listen to the arguments and work things out and confess that they have got it wrong. That is where I give Senator Xenophon credit. Today in front of that quite significant crowd he asked for forgiveness—he said, 'I am sorry, I thought it was going to be good but I realise that was wrong.' There are others who just take the limelight, the credit, and I am not sure that I have heard the same sorts of indications from them.
I guess that is the way this game of politics is. There are people elected on a certain platform, they get into this chamber, they change their allegiances and then they start continually voting in a way that is contrary to how they indicated prior to their election that they would vote. As I say, the voters of Australia are no dills. They will work those sorts of things out. You have to have some integrity; you have to have some ability to be honest with the people of Australia. When you are not, when you just move with the popular tide at the time, Australians understand that. That was one reason that I indicated I was totally opposed to the Labor suggestion of a 15 per cent GST. I and all of my colleagues at the time—unfortunately there are not many left—solemnly promised to the people of Australia, when it was suggested we would be putting it in at 10 per cent and quickly increasing it to 15 per cent, that it would not go beyond 10 per cent and that is why I indicated when the Labor Party raised the 15 per cent issue that I, for one, would be voting against it. There needs to be some integrity and again, Mr Deputy President, I do not want to embarrass you in the chair because you do not have a right of response but you yourself have shown that your integrity, your courage and your conviction to the cause that you believe in are paramount. Fortunately in the Liberal and National parties we are able to do that—we are able to cross the party line if we believe in all conscience that our constituents and our electors, and our integrity, require us to do that.
I will conclude by again referring to the Governor-General's opening speech and congratulating him on the way that he delivered the government's agenda—not his personal agenda but the government's agenda. I congratulate him on his integrity and praise the very significant service of that man, who now occupies the position of leader of our country as Governor-General. I congratulate him on the way he has discharged his duties and carried out those duties with humility and courage, as he has during most of his life. I support the address by the Governor-General.
Sorry, Senator Back—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I could not help myself after that inspiring speech by Senator Macdonald. I felt I had to jump to my feet and have my chance to respond.
It was interesting being in here today, when our colleagues from the other place, the House of Representatives, came through the door. It reminded me of my first Government-General speech, sitting in this chair. It certainly was a good experience for me. I sat next to the previous Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. All through the Governor-General's opening speech, which, of course, was written by the then Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd was muttering under his breath, 'This man has no vision; this man has no vision.' When I sat here this morning, listening to the few words that we heard from the current Governor-General, which, obviously, were written by our current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, it occurred to me that exactly the same thing was the case.
We are about to go to a double dissolution election. We are about to dissolve both houses of parliament, something that has not been seen in this country for over three decades—a very serious thing to do—on the back of some faulty and flawed proposed legislation. The title of the bill refers to 'improving productivity' in the workplace. This is hardly something to take the country to a double dissolution on, and it is hardly the economic vision of a government that is going to lead this country into the 21st century. The economic vision of the previous Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, before he was deposed, was ripping up the carbon price, ripping up the mining tax and stopping the boats. He did not have anything to offer. He did not campaign on anything. Such was the chaos and disarray of the previous Labor government, he got elected by default. After his first budget, he nearly brought on a double dissolution then, because some of us were seriously considering blocking supply, it was that bad. Nevertheless, history shows that, as the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said in his first press conference, Mr Abbott had to go because he had no economic management credentials, or something similar to that.
So here we have our current Prime Minister—he has not delivered a budget, but he has made it clear today by recalling parliament that this piece of proposed legislation is absolutely essential. It is touchstone legislation for his government's economic agenda. What a load of claptrap. The proposed legislation that we debated today for the second time and was defeated by the Senate—and so it should have been—does not reflect what the people of this country want from their government. Tackling multinational tax avoidance; tax reform that leads to a fair and more equitable Australia; revenue-raising measures that get the balance right; an economic vision for a new economy; tackling climate change and creating tens of thousands of new jobs at the same time; being a global leader in areas of climate science and areas of multinational tax avoidance—there is so much this country could do, and yet here we are debating the Australian Building and Construction Commission through a piece of ideological proposed legislation that is straight from the IPA wish list and that most Australians do not think is serious enough to call a double dissolution election on. In fact, I would say most Australians would disagree with the bill if they understood the detail. The government has no vision and no plan for the future.
Senator Smith—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President—would like to move onto something else. Perhaps you do not like being told some home truths, Senator Smith. Yes, I was assisting the chamber by speaking on the address-in-reply, but I was very glad that I got my chance to say that it was quite an experience sitting next to the previous Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, only weeks after having lost the election for Labor. He was absolutely right: this government has had no vision and no plan, and today doubly proved that to me. I am absolutely convinced that this government is likely to go to a double dissolution election because it wants to save its own political skin and this Prime Minister is worried about his own leadership and holding his own party together. The Australian people are smarter than that and, if they get even the slightest sniff that a move to a double dissolution election is to save Malcolm Turnbull's leadership and his own political skin, it will backfire. That is my prophecy. You heard it here first, if it is right.