Thursday, 18 October 2018
Consideration of Legislation
That on Thursday, 18 October 2018—
(a) the Government Procurement (Judicial Review) Bill 2017 and the Treasury Laws Amendment (Lower Taxes for Small and Medium Businesses) Bill 2018 be called on immediately and have precedence over all government business until determined;
(b) if by 11.45 am the bills have not been finally considered, the questions on all remaining stages shall be put without debate; and
(c) paragraph (b) of this order shall operate as a limitation of debate under standing order 142.
I intend to move an amendment to the motion to omit paragraphs (b) and (c). The Centre Alliance is no stranger to standing order 142. I was here in the chamber on 20 June and listened to how people were absolutely disgusted that the government would deploy such a tactic. I'm not walking away from the fact that we supported that at the time, but I point out it was a tactic that basically sought to guillotine the committee stage of a bill. In this instance, we have a couple of bills that are going to be debated and put through the chamber this morning, and there's a risk that one of them won't even get a second reading debate. Something that the Centre Alliance doesn't support at all—in any way, shape or form—is the gagging of second reading debates.
I move as an amendment:
Omit paragraphs (b) and (c).
I do this without the theatrics and without any histrionic contribution. I just simply want to make it very clear that to allow only two hours for these two important bills is extremely problematic.
Let's talk about the Government Procurement (Judicial Review) Bill 2017. That bill is, of course, enabling legislation for the TPP. The TPP is a significant agreement that has been worked on for a decade. The only opportunity the parliament gets to deal with this particular bill—and I know that people on the Labor side of the Senate support me in saying this, because our treaty process is so broken and there have been so many recommendations about how to change it—and the only chance this parliament really gets to have a say in any of the treaties that we sign up to is when it comes to enabling legislation. That's what we're dealing with here.
Yesterday and the day before we dealt with customs bills. Today we are being asked to consider at the committee stage the judicial review bill. I tell the minister that I have a number of very detailed questions that go absolutely to the bill and an understanding of how the bill is written, how it would affect Australian companies and how it would affect the procurement process. I'd like the opportunity to ask those in a calm, civilised, unpressured environment. I know that Senator Whish-Wilson has some questions, as does Senator Hanson-Young, relating to other elements of the TPP, understanding that a consequence of passing that bill is that the TPP will come into force. I've made the chamber well aware of our concerns with that—the first concern being that there are ISDS provisions in that bill.
On ISDS provisions: I understand the argument from the government. They say that they protect Australian companies. But, unfortunately, the bill has an adverse effect here in Australia. We've seen the case of Philip Morris. Philip Morris brought an action against Australia in relation to tobacco plain packaging. They did so after the tobacco companies challenged this parliament in our High Court as to whether the legislation that enabled the tobacco plain packaging to come into effect was lawful. They challenged that in our High Court, and they lost—they lost. They then set up a company in Hong Kong and sought to use the ISDS provisions in that arrangement that we had between Hong Kong and Australia. Just so the chamber is clear, Centre Alliance supported Australia in opposing that particular ISDS claim. Indeed the Commonwealth, rightly, argued that the tribunal was without jurisdiction, because Philip Morris had set up the company in Hong Kong specifically for the purposes of initiating ISDS, and the tribunal found that it did not have jurisdiction in that case. So Australia was successful in that.
But the taxpayer, unfortunately, was made to bear the cost of that case. The government, for well over two years, tried to keep the cost of that case secret. They were asked at estimates, and they made claims about cabinet in confidence. I note that there are a lot of cabinet-in-confidence claims being made around this chamber and, indeed, across the Senate committee rooms. Most of them are very flawed and most of them undermine the doctrine. Nonetheless, former Senator Xenophon and I beat down that claim until the department recognised that they were on a loser. They then switched to international relations and said, 'Well, we can't do this because it will damage international relations.' Finally, when the Information Commissioner ruled in favour of former Senator Xenophon, the department took it to the AAT, spending more taxpayers' money to try and prevent us finding out how much that cost. The Productivity Commission had, somehow, guessed $50 million but we now know the truth. It was $39 million—$39 million in legal fees as a result of an action raised under ISDS.
What the ISDS provisions seek to do is take the sovereign risk that is borne by corporations and pass that risk to the taxpayer. I understand why the Liberal Party might want to do that; because they don't want their corporate donors to have any sovereign risk. They'd rather that that risk sit with the taxpayer; the taxpayer who has to pay for it out of some budget that would otherwise go to support the social structure of this country.
We are highly offended by the ISDS. I know the government once again says, 'No, it's good,' but even the Europeans are walking away from it. President Trump has removed it from the NAFTA. Other very solid jurisdictions that don't have crazy leaders or do strange things are walking away from ISDS. It's actually part of the Labor Party national platform not to support trade deals with ISDS, yet we've seen at least six occasions over the last couple of days where Labor have voted against their own national platform.
The other area of concern is labour market testing. We have traversed this topic in the past few days, but it applies also to the Government Procurement (Judicial Review) Bill 2017, because it now is the last thing that stands in the way of the TPP-11 agreement coming into force for this country. The waiving of that labour market testing will allow foreign companies to bring workers into Australia without having to test to find out whether or not there is some Australian worker who can do that job. We may have electricians come in from overseas who don't even understand some of our wiring rules, so it's not just about workers; it's also about safety. I know this because I've listened to what the unions have had to say, through the media and through submissions that they've made.
Once again, I find it totally disturbing that the Labor Party, who have a fundamental objection to the waiving of labour market testing, yesterday on numerous occasions voted to allow that to occur. One Nation were against it. The Greens were against it. Centre Alliance had pronounced that it would not support it. That left it to Labor. Labor had the choice. They could have rejected this. We are not saying: walk away from the TPP. We just need to cut the cancer out. In fact, we even put up a motion yesterday that would allow the TPP to enter into effect but sunset, so that we would make it very clear to foreign nations that indeed the Labor Party were committed to removing this, and the enabling legislation would expire on 1 January 2020. But they didn't want to vote for that. They've done a deal with the coalition, just as they've done a deal here to try to shut down discussion. So we do need to have a solid committee stage for the judicial review bill.
The other bill that we are being asked to consider is the Treasury Laws Amendment (Lower Taxes for Small and Medium Businesses) Bill 2018. I want to put on the record that Centre Alliance supports this bill. However, we have to ask: what's the urgency? Why do we have to get it through the parliament today?
I've got an interjection from Senator Whish-Wilson. He's suggesting it might be because there's a by-election in Wentworth on Saturday. We must absolutely recognise that that is what this is about. This is not measured policy.
I have great respect for Senator Cormann. He always works through legislation carefully. He negotiates well with the crossbench. He is very honourable in his representations to us. He does what he says he will do. So I'm very surprised that, in this instance, you are now seeking to guillotine the committee stage and almost completely gag the second reading stage of a bill. You know that that is not the way democracies are supposed to work. It surprises me that you would support this motion to guillotine and gag, particularly in the circumstances where there is no hurry. The TPP negotiations have been going on for over a decade. We don't have to rush this today. The tax cuts aren't going to come in the moment we pass the legislation. What is the urgency? I get it that sometimes there are urgent bills that pass through the parliament—the legislation on strawberries, for example—when we are dealing with an urgent issue, and the parliament works extremely well. I don't understand why it is that they are seeking to do this.
When the personal tax cuts were being dealt with, Senator Wong said:
I would say this to the crossbench: regardless of your position on tax, what a discourtesy to the chamber. We gave this government 3½ hours of debate last night, because we do understand that it is important to get on with this debate. We have amendments from Senator Storer …
She went on and on, saying how bad this was. That was an instance where we had allowed debate. I hope I get to ask some questions; I do have some genuine questions to ask on the judicial review bill. We're actually going into a situation where, presumably, no-one gets to speak during the second reading of the tax bill. Through you, Madam Deputy President, do people really find that acceptable? Does Senator Cormann find that acceptable? Does Senator Fifield find that acceptable? Does Senator Wong find that acceptable that there will possibly be no debate?
I just want to point out something: I think there are about three sitting weeks left where there will be legislation that passes through this chamber and, when it passes through this chamber, there are going to be moments where the Labor Party are very opposed to it. The message you're going to send us today is, 'When that occurs, Centre Alliance, what you should do is support the government and either gag or guillotine the debate.' Is that really what you want us to do? Senator Cormann said: 'We respect that the government controls the Senate. We do that all the time. We work with you to make sure that you are managing carefully the legislation that passes through this place and we support you.' But in doing this sort of stuff, where you know it's not the right thing to do, you put that great relationship that we have in jeopardy, and that may affect you moving forward. I urge you to really think carefully about what it is that you're doing today.
One of the funny things is, whenever you try and time manage debate—I know that's what you call it, but it's actually a guillotine and a gag—inevitably what happens is someone stands up and moves a motion or seeks to suspend standing orders. What that ends up doing—and I understand this—is shortening the debate time even more. That's a pattern; we know how that pattern works. People move these sorts of motions and say, 'Look, we're going to give you 2½ hours or two hours,' or whatever time frame, but you know that gets shortened by all the procedural stuff that goes on because people rightly get up and say: 'I don't like this. This is not the way the Senate is supposed to work. We're supposed to allow people to stand up and have a say.'
What is the plan for second readings for the tax bill? Is it a case that we're simply going to allocate one speaker from each party? Is that how it's going to work? Senator Patrick doesn't get to have a say. Senator Storer doesn't get to have his say. Senator Ruston doesn't get to have her say. Senator Hanson doesn't get to have her say. Is this how this works? How are you going to do that? How are you going to manage simply not allowing anyone to speak on an important bill? I know Labor have had a bit of trouble with this bill. They might not want to talk about it because they've flipped and they've flopped and they've flipped. They may need some time to actually clarify what their position is, because some of us struggle to work out what it is. Some of us simply don't know.
We would like to hear from everyone, particularly as a crossbencher who doesn't have the great resources that the government or the Labor Party have. Sometimes we sit in this chamber and listen to what people are saying, and it actually changes our minds. It actually brings in the thought, 'Maybe we haven't considered this properly,' or, 'Maybe we have to use our influence positively to get an amendment across the line to fix something that gets raised in the speeches in the second reading debate that might be wrong.' This is very, very unfortunate territory that we are marching through. I'm extremely disappointed with the government. I will give you credit because you did give advance warning of the motion, but that doesn't change the outcome. You haven't ambushed anyone here, which is good, but it still doesn't change what the outcome is, and that is that this is a guillotine.
I want to ask some questions on the judicial review bill, which may have some significance. They're genuine questions. I'll stand to be criticised if I ask these questions and you find that they're filibustering. They're genuine questions about the operation of the bill that might assist a court in interpreting what the parliamentary will was when a litigation is commenced. There are some details in the bill—and I know quite a lot about procurement; I've been involved in it for a long time. I know some of the loopholes that are employed by departments to get around some of the rules. That might be a little bit disingenuous, but the reality is I've been on the other side of the fence, dealing in environments trying to win contracts. I know that a lot of companies get to the end of a procurement and are rather upset by the outcome. Some of that could be emotional. Some of it is simply because the company has invested a lot of time and money. But there are some uncertainties in the bill that is being put to the parliament. I'd like to have those clarified in the committee stage, and that's going to take me a little bit of time. Unfortunately, Senator Cormann, you're not allowing me any time. That's extremely disappointing.
We would like to have a say to support the bill that you are bringing into the parliament on the small to medium business tax cuts. We have some good things to say about that. We want to let our constituents know why we are supporting that, but you are, unfortunately, going to deny us that opportunity. I think that's sad.
The government will not be supporting the amendment moved by Senator Patrick. I also have very high regard for Senator Patrick and the way he engages with the government, but let me say that, if he were sincere in his wish to ask questions about the Government Procurement (Judicial Review) Bill 2017, we could have spent the last 20 minutes dealing with that particular bill. In relation to those two pieces of legislation, one is, as Senator Patrick said, an enabling piece of legislation giving effect to the trans-Pacific partnership agreement. That is a debate that has been going on for some time. Indeed, the Government Procurement (Judicial Review) Bill 2017 also strengthens the opportunity for small business to appeal against bad decisions of government departments in the context of procurement.
In relation to the small- and medium-sized business tax cuts legislation in particular, this is a debate that has been going on for more than two years. All we're doing with this bill is bringing forward tax cuts that have previously been legislated by this parliament, including having passed through this Senate. You might recall, we had a very, very, very lengthy debate in March 2017 when the Senate ultimately voted to reduce to 25 per cent the corporate tax rate for businesses with a turnover of up to $50 million. The decision of the time was to do that over a time period to 2026-27. Subsequently, of course, the government sought to pass legislation to implement business tax cuts down to 25 per cent over the same period for all businesses across Australia. That was unsuccessful, and everybody here in the Senate remembers the circumstances of that. That was also a pretty lengthy debate which went over months.
The government has accepted the verdict of the Senate. The government has announced very clearly that all we're trying to do here is bring forward what has already been legislated. We think it's important to provide that certainty to small- and medium-sized businesses as soon as possible so that we can have the beneficial effect of increased investment, stronger growth, more jobs and higher wages as soon as possible, because by giving that certainty to small- and medium-sized businesses at the earliest opportunity, we of course help them make investment decisions today about their future growth opportunities. I don't think it's fair to say that there hasn't been ample opportunity for debate in relation to the government's proposal to reduce the corporate tax rate for small- and medium-sized businesses with a turnover of up to $50 million in the Senate over the last two years or so. This is not the time to make a decision. I believe that there is consensus in the chamber for this to happen.
The government is very grateful that in relation to the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and the Government Procurement (Judicial Review) Bill 2017 the Labor Party has backed in the national interest. We understand that that it's been a difficult debate and that some of the issues that Senator Patrick raises are issues that the Labor Party also had to work their way through. We are very grateful that ultimately the Labor Party's judgement is to back this legislation in because it's going to be good for Australia.
We're obviously not sitting next week—it's Senate estimates next week—and I think it's important for us as the Senate to deal with those two important pieces of legislation before we leave. I'm not going to hold the Senate up any longer because I want us to get to the debate as fast as we can so that Senator Patrick and others can ask questions about the Government Procurement (Judicial Review) Bill and the legislation to implement tax cuts for small- and medium-sized businesses faster. I think it's important that we get on with it.
The Senate is a house of review—we're a house of review. Our job is not to be a rubber stamp for the executive. Our job is to scrutinise legislation. Our job is to slow down the pace of legislation, particularly when it is as far-reaching as some of the legislation that has been before this chamber.
Our job is not to work to a timetable dictated to by a by-election because you mob knifed your own Prime Minister and now have to face the consequences of it over the weekend. Our job is to be deliberative. Our job is to take our time. Our job is to scrutinise legislation, debate on the details of that legislation and then make considered decisions about it. That's what the role of the Senate is. We Greens take that role seriously. We take our role in scrutinising government legislation, particularly when it's legislation that this government wants to rush through at the eleventh hour on the eve of a by-election, very seriously.
Our role in this place is now being frustrated by the government, and it seems with the support of the Labor Party, for absolutely no reason other than to work to a timetable that is dictated to by a by-election and to help the Prime Minister stay in the Lodge for a few more months. I'm sorry, but we are not going to commit to reducing Australia's revenue base by $10 billion and spend less than an hour considering the implications of that.
One of the two bills that we're discussing today enables the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership—another deal between the Liberals and the Labor Party to give more power to corporations, shut the community out and ensure that when it comes to protecting environment or public health, or indeed labour laws in this country, that we're handing over a blank cheque to huge multinationals. Yet, here we are looking to rush that legislation through at the eleventh hour because we've been dictated to by a Prime Minister who's more concerned about keeping his job than he is about looking after ordinary Australians.
And now we've got a second bill that's going to be rushed through in the next hour and a half that's going to cut taxes for companies with a turnover of up to $50 million. The government and the Labor Party are spruiking this as tax cuts for small business, but in no-one's definition is a threshold of up to $50 million a small business. These are significant medium-sized businesses—some of them large businesses—that need to make a contribution to the prosperity of this nation.
This tax cut won't take effect until July 2020, when the tax rate moves to 26 per cent; it will move to 25 per cent a year later. It's not this year; it's not next year; it's the year after that. Yet here we are rushing this legislation because the government wants to deliver certainty to small businesses, to medium sized businesses and to large businesses. It's two years out, and you're talking about certainty. You won't even be the government next year! You talk about certainty, and you're responsible for undermining certainty when it comes to some of the most significant businesses in this country. In the energy sector, where's the certainty? You've got no climate policy and no energy policy. You're undermining the only policy that's working at the moment, the Renewable Energy Target. You have been responsible for introducing massive uncertainty into the energy sector, and you've got the gall to talk about certainty for business. What a joke!
We're not going to see bakers making more bread tomorrow because you pass this legislation and rush it through the Senate in the next hour and a half without giving the opportunity for the Senate to do its job and scrutinise the legislation. There's not a single business that's going to employ one additional staff member because you rush through this bill in this time frame and move the company tax rate in two years time! Spare us the insults.
The reality is the government has decided that we will not uphold the important democratic principles on which this chamber is founded—that we are a house of review that exists to scrutinise government legislation, particularly those pieces of legislation that rip billions of dollars out of our schools and our hospitals. This is money that could be spent on increasing Newstart, addressing the homelessness crisis in this country, addressing domestic violence, closing the gap with Indigenous Australians, protecting the Great Barrier Reef, investing in climate change and addressing economic inequality in this country. Instead, you want to ram through a piece of legislation, with the support of the Labor Party, that rips billions of dollars from those areas we know desperately need it.
What's your argument? 'We've got to deliver certainty.' How remarkable! The only certainty you want to deliver is the certainty of knowing that you're shoring up your chance in the Wentworth by-election. That's the certainty you're after; it's not certainty for small business but certainty for your preselected candidate that is what you want. Do you seriously believe that a local cafe in Brisbane is going to stop making coffee if you don't pass this legislation without the scrutiny that it deserves within the next hour and a half? Do you seriously think that? Are you insulting our intelligence by doing what you're doing? Of course you are.
This isn't about being competitive on tax in 2021. It's about being competitive in Wentworth on Saturday. That's what it's about. The only reason we are being told to rush through this piece of legislation is that the Liberal Party dumped their Prime Minister. That's why we are being forced to rush it. That's what happens when you have a government governing for their own internal reasons rather than governing for the nation. Of course, we've had the latest iteration. You want to talk about certainty? How about the certainty of knowing who the Deputy Prime Minister of this country is. Let's start there. Here we are on the eve of a by-election with the prospect of Barnaby Joyce becoming the Deputy Prime Minister again. You are an embarrassment. You are an international embarrassment.
The world is looking at the Liberal Party right now and you have turned Australia into a laughing-stock. Now we're supposed to wave through a $10-odd billion hit to budget revenue because some focus group in Wentworth said it might help you shore up your chances there. There's a huge cost in doing what you are doing. You have demonstrated that you are prepared to trash our democracy when it's in your narrow political interest. That's what you've done. You've shown it time and time and time again. You've shown you don't care about democracy, you don't care about the way this chamber works. Only a few weeks ago you cancelled parliament because you were in an effort to roll the Prime Minister of this country. You've shown—when it comes to orchestrating raids on union offices and having the media there before anyone else—that you don't care about democracy. You've shown with your attacks on charities and other advocates that you don't care about democracy. You've shown with those massive corporate donations that line the pockets of the Liberal Party that you don't care about democracy. You've shown in your reluctance to support a national anticorruption watchdog that you don't care about democracy. You've shown in the way that you privilege lobbyists in this building, without any transparency, keeping the public out but keeping big business in, that you don't care about democracy in Australia.
Here we are with the motion before the Senate. Let's go to what that motion says. That motion says that within the next hour and 40 minutes we are going to debate the passage of two pieces of legislation, and in an hour and 40 minutes you will gag any further debate and we'll be forced to vote on it. We won't have the opportunity to talk about your promises around what these cuts to big business do. We won't be able to use the committee stage to interrogate the assumptions on which that policy is made. We won't be able to use the committee stage to talk about what the other options are for that $10 billion in revenue and what it could be used for.
Here we are, only a few weeks after a huge international report, the IPCC report, where nearly 100 scientists came together to sound a warning shot to the rest of the world—saying that if we don't transition our economy away from coal to renewables, we're going to lose our coral reefs; we're going to see more extreme weather; the drought that we're experiencing right now, that is crippling rural Australia, will become a regular phenomenon. Yet, you have a renewable energy sector riven with uncertainty because of the actions of this government, and you have the gall to talk about the need for certainty in the business community.
What does a tax cut do for the Great Barrier Reef? It does nothing. What does a tax cut do for those people who are sleeping rough tonight? It does nothing. What does a tax cut do for those people who can't put food on the table because Newstart condemns them to living in poverty? It does nothing. What does a tax cut do for those people on a hospital waiting list who are waiting to get their hip or knee replaced? It does nothing. What does a tax cut do for the 90 per cent of kids in public schools who won't get funding to the bare standard that they need? It does nothing. What does a tax cut do for those people who are fleeing domestic violence and can't get access to crisis accommodation? It does nothing. Yet, here we are with $10 billion ripped out of the services that we know need them and, in a desperate rush in the lead-up to the Wentworth by-election, a government, supported by the Labor Party, trashing our democracy and preventing the Senate from doing its job. We won't stand for it. We'll take this opportunity now and we'll continue to take it all the way up to the next election to highlight your hypocrisy and to highlight who you represent. You don't represent business in this country; you represent yourselves. This is a desperate pitch in the lead-up to the Wentworth by-election because you are so worried and so concerned that you're prepared to do and say anything in a desperate attempt to hold on to power. Look at that disgraceful decision to consider relocating our embassy to Jerusalem. It was met with international condemnation. You're prepared to trash the relationship with some of our most important partners. You're prepared to side with One Nation.
I didn't refer to anybody specifically. I said, 'You're prepared to side with the racists and bigots in this chamber.' People can draw their own inferences about who that was directed at. The reality is this is a government that's prepared to side with the racists and bigots in this chamber in a desperate attempt to hold on to power. We saw that only a few days ago when they supported that disgraceful motion that was presented in this chamber and cited as an administration error. There are no depths to which this government will not stoop. There are no depths to which they will not stoop. While we disagree, fundamentally, with Centre Alliance and Senator Patrick's support for the small business tax cuts, the one thing we do agree on is that the Senate should be allowed to do its job. While we disagree on many areas of policy, the one area that we do agree on—indeed, this is something shared by most members of the crossbench—is that we are elected here to hold governments to account regardless of their persuasion. Today, the political duopoly, the Coles and Woolies of politics, are locking us out. They are preventing us from doing our job.
We have two significant pieces of legislation before us. One piece is designed to facilitate a trade agreement that will hand over inordinate power to large corporations, that gives the power to corporations to sue governments for taking action to safeguard our environment and to protect public health. It's saying to mining companies, 'You can sue sovereign governments if they deny you a permit to exploit a particular resource.' It's saying to corporations, 'If you take action to protect the public health of our community, a corporation can now sue a sovereign government.' This is the sort of legislation that we are being prevented from scrutinising as a result of the decision of the Liberal Party with the support of the Labor Party.
We are about to have a debate in this country leading into an election around tax cuts. I fear that what we're going to see is this giveaway continue all the way to the next election—my tax cut is bigger than your tax cut. We need to know what the impact of those tax cuts is on our community. We need to know what a $10 billion tax cut does, what the opportunity cost is of ripping that money away from the essential public services that we know so desperately need them.
Again I say to you, and I urge the chamber: do not support this motion. I say this again directly to the Liberal Party: we understand what is driving the Liberal Party—desperation, clinging onto power, saving their hides. holding onto Wentworth. It's what's driven them to make those rash announcements in the lead-up to this by-election. But why on earth would the Labor Party be facilitating them in passing this motion that stops the Senate from doing its job?
I remind you again, and hope you have pause to reconsider supporting this motion: this chamber is not a rubber stamp. It is a house of review. We have been charged with an awesome responsibility by the Australian people to ensure that every bill that passes from the lower house to the Senate gets the due scrutiny it deserves. We need to slow down the pace of legislation to interrogate it, to examine unintended consequences—not to accelerate it, not to rush it through, not to jam it and ram it through, which is what this motion does.
We're supposed to be a democracy that ensures that both houses do their job. The role of the Senate is being frustrated by a government for no other reason than a desperate Prime Minister seeking to cling onto power. The Labor Party shouldn't facilitate them in doing that.