Senate debates

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Liberal Party Leadership

3:12 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Finance and the Public Service (Senator Cormann) to questions without notice asked by Senators Watt and Kitching today relating to a party meeting and to energy policy.

Those questions related to the extraordinary late-night move last night of the Prime Minister and the Liberal Party to change the rules to make sure that they don't have to go through yet another leadership change of the kind that we saw recently—not that long ago—when Prime Minister Turnbull knocked off Prime Minister Abbott.

I think all of us were surprised when we read last night that an urgent meeting of the Liberal Party had been called, and there was lots of speculation about what that might have been about. But I suppose anyone who has been watching federal politics any time recently would know that an urgent, unplanned, extraordinary meeting of the Liberal Party would be called for the only topic that the Liberal Party seem capable of talking about at the moment—and that is themselves and their leadership. Everyone in this place knows that there are many, many challenges that this country faces such as the fact that, under this government, wages do not rise and do not keep pace with the increases in profits that we keep seeing going to big business, the natural allies of this government. That would be a topic that I would have thought it worth this government calling an urgent partyroom meeting over. But they never want to talk about that.

I suppose, to give them credit, they have called a number of urgent partyroom meetings to talk about energy policy. They had a partyroom meeting when they settled on the Clean Energy Target. Then they had a partyroom meeting when they ditched the Clean Energy Target. They had a partyroom meeting when they settled on the emissions intensity scheme and another partyroom meeting when they got rid of the emissions intensity scheme. More recently, they had a partyroom meeting when former Prime Minister Turnbull actually got support from his party room for the National Energy Guarantee. It actually got through their party room. Despite that, of course, a partyroom meeting had to be called not long after that to kill off something which they'd voted for not that long before. That reflects the level of chaos that we continue to see from this government, on energy policy in particular, but, really, on every matter that it deals with.

So nothing says stability like calling an urgent, unplanned, extraordinary meeting of your party at 9 o'clock at night on a sitting night. That's perfectly normal—that's how things should be run in any major political party. That's certainly how they're run in the Liberal Party. Not only was this meeting called at very short notice, late at night on a sitting night, but we had the laughable picture of senators running in and out of the meeting to come to divisions in here and to fill quorums in the chamber while their own legislation was being debated. It was more chaos from this government, something that we have become used to.

There is only one reason I can think of for why the Prime Minister was so keen to move this rule change early in the sitting week. You can imagine him sitting with Senator Cormann on the big plane coming back from Argentina, through the choppy clouds, thinking about what they were going to do in the sitting week and how they were going to make it through. Someone obviously had the brainwave to change the rules for the leadership, to make sure that nothing could happen again. I think we were all interested to note that one of the leadership pretenders for the future, and the past, Ms Bishop, was noticeably very late in getting to that meeting. I do wonder whether anyone bothered to tell Ms Bishop that this meeting was being held to change the leadership rules that she may have a very great interest in—certainly, after the election and, potentially, even beforehand. But, sadly for Ms Bishop, her own leadership aspirations seem to be delayed again by the boys in the Liberal Party. And now they've made it that little bit harder for her to ever reach the top job, which we all know that she wants to do.

Turning to other matters in the limited time I have left: it was good to see another contribution from the former Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, today on the National Energy Guarantee. He said that he has strongly encouraged his colleagues to work together to revive the National Energy Guarantee:

It was a vital piece of economic policy. It had strong support, and none stronger I might say than the current Prime Minister and the current Treasurer.

It is really sad when you look over at the Liberal Party: it seems to be that anyone who ever bothered to try to come up with a policy to deal with energy prices or a policy to deal with climate change—most recently, the NEG and anyone who supports the NEG—has no place left in the Liberal Party. Mr Turnbull was a supporter of the NEG. Of course, they got rid of him. They knocked him out of parliament altogether. Ms Bishop has been a supporter of the NEG and, of course, she was sent back to the backbench. And Julia Banks, the member for Chisholm, was a supporter of the NEG and she decided there was no place left for her in the Liberal Party.

The Liberals are totally focused on themselves. They call urgent, unplanned meetings in the middle of the night to change their rules but are never about the issues that Australians care about. (Time expired)

3:18 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's very touching that the Australian Labor Party is so concerned about the internal events of the Liberal Party. But can I tell Senator Watt something? The Australian people are more concerned about energy prices. They're more concerned about jobs and jobs growth for the future. What I would say to Senator Watt is this: you can roll out Mr Turnbull, and we can respond by rolling out Mr Latham or Mr Rudd. We can talk about the Labor Party's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, which was the 'greatest moral challenge of our time' until the opinion polls turned and then the Labor Party, including the vast majority of those sitting in this chamber, discarded their policy like a soiled tissue—of no value. There was no thought given; it was just dismissed.

Well, we can go tit for tat on that. But do you know what? Does that create one extra job for the Australian people? No. Does it decrease their energy prices? No. But this morning, the Liberal-National party room put through its meeting a policy to ensure the divestiture of big energy companies which are gaming the system—something Labor will not do because they're on the side of the big energy companies, whereas we in the coalition are on the side of the consumers, the farmers, the small-business people and the pensioners. And that is where we as a government are getting on with policy.

When we in opposition announced that in the first five years we would seek to help create one million jobs, the Labor Party scoffed. What we have we done? We have delivered the one million jobs before time, and now it is well and truly over one million jobs. Today there are fewer adults on welfare than in the last, I think, 15 or 20 years. That's another good not only economic indicator but also fantastic social indicator, showing that we are getting more of our fellow Australians engaged in the mainstream economy, where they can be self-reliant, where they have the dignity of a job, and where the young people, in particular, are engaging in the economy, where there is jobs growth and an opportunity for their future. They're the things that we as a government are delivering on for the Australian people. That's what we were elected to do. That is what we are doing. That is what we are delivering.

The Australian Labor Party, devoid of any policy other than to destroy the economy, seek to play their political games, as was witnessed in question time today in this Senate. What did we see? We saw silly questions about what Mr Turnbull may or may not have said. The Australian people are over it. What they want is policy and policy delivery. What I say to the Australian people is: when the Labor Party engage in such immature politics, what they're really doing is asking you not to look at their policies. The Labor Party has a policy that would destroy the Australian economy: their 45 per cent or now 50 per cent, I think, Renewable Energy Target. This is a target that would destroy household budgets, small businesses and manufacturing.

They would have made the $400 million payment to the International Climate Fund with what? With borrowed money. Where from? From China. And guess where we get our money from to fund the deficit from China, and guess who was trying to hook into that international climate change fund? None other than China. So the Labor Party economic policy is: borrow money from China to pay it into an international fund, to pay it back to China so we can then pay interest to China. That is the way the Australian Labor Party would wreck our economy.

We know that Mr Shorten is union bred, union led and union fed. He would do the bidding of the militant CFMMEU. He would do the bidding of Sally McManus and the ACTU. That would take us back, way beyond what Mr Hawke and Mr Keating did as prime ministers to ensure that we became a modern economy. They are now, today, repudiating the policies of Hawke and Keating and going way back. We, on this side, are focused on delivering for the Australian people, for jobs and growth. (Time expired)

3:23 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, rise to take note of Senator Cormann's answer to questions from Senator Kitching and Senator Watt. I listened very carefully to the answer, and I listened carefully to some of the media commentary and to Senator Cormann's words on this. He said that the executive had a meeting. The ministry had a meeting. Then they instructed the whips to get the members of the Liberal Party together for a meeting to consider the proposal. Once again, it was top down. It was driven at the executive level, the leadership level, and then it spread to the ministry. Then the whips were instructed to gather the troops together.

It was an unscheduled meeting—clearly, there are party room meetings on a regular basis during sitting weeks—to deal with what? We know that those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Go back to the Hon. Tony Abbott, who was replaced under invidious circumstances by the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull. The Hon. Tony Abbott set about undermining the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull—until he'd had enough of it. The Hon. Malcolm Turnbull used existing rules, and he introduced his own rule. He said: 'Unless I see 43 signatures, there'll be no spill.' I think the Liberal Party rules at that stage were that a reasonable number of backbenchers and/or members of the Liberal Party could instigate a spill, but the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull introduced a new rule, which was '43 signatures or I'm gone'. Then we saw the inability of some people to get to the count of 43, and we saw Prime Minister Morrison replace the candidate the Hon. Peter Dutton.

In the electorate, this is probably the question that I get wherever I go: what happened to Malcolm Turnbull; why did he have to go? No-one's clearly and concisely explained that, other than in very procedural terms. They say, 'It's a gift of the coalition party room or the Liberal party room,' and, 'You need to command the support of your fellow members of parliament.' That's all true, but the people who thought—quite wrongly, really, because they probably didn't live in Wentworth—that they'd voted for the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull are not satisfied with that. If you listen carefully to the federal MPs in the Victorian election, when they handed out in their various state electorates, they were met with chilling, deathly silence and cold stares. The Liberal Party have repeated every mistake and added a few to the book of mistakes of the last 10 years. They've added a few and invented a few of their own, and they're going down an inexorable path of decimation.

It doesn't actually apply to Prime Minister Morrison. It would only apply if he gets elected whenever he calls the next election, so you think: 'Why would he choose to call an urgent meeting a couple of days prior to the end of the sitting year? Maybe he's decided to have an election on 27 January? Maybe he's not going to come back for his budget? Maybe things are going to get so bad that he might just pull the pin and say, "Look, we're going to an election"?' If there is an election, at least he can campaign and say, 'If you elect me as Prime Minister, I guarantee I'll be there for the whole term because of this three-quarter rule.' It appears to be, once again—like most of the things they have done—policy on the run meant to appease someone somewhere. It's not evident to the electorate, and it's probably not going to be rewarded by the electorate.

I don't think this rule is going to have a chance to be enacted or to be of any use to the Liberal Party for at least three years, if not six years or nine years. I think the size of their impending electoral disaster is such that the rule will just simply dissolve into nothing, because it is unlikely they'll need it in the 46th parliament, and it's very unlikely, in my view, they'll need it in the 47th parliament because they won't be in government the way they're going. They've changed their Prime Ministers like some people change their shirts. They're putting these rules in very late in the piece—in the last couple of days. The rules won't help you, and they appear to be impenetrable. No-one can really understand what the Liberal Party are doing, and there'll be no good coming out of this rule change.

3:28 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Sometimes five minutes in the Australian Senate is longer than five minutes everywhere else in the country, and what we just saw was a very torturous five minutes from Senator Gallacher, but I thank you for your effort! What we had from Senator Watt was an application form. Senator Watt was trying to apply to join the cross bench. There's no-one in this place who was trying to announce a conspiracy theory about the events of yesterday in the coalition more than Senator Watt. He got an important fact wrong. He said the meeting started at 9 pm. It started at 7.30 pm—a very reasonable time for coalition party meetings to occur on a Monday. It's not a surprise. They happen more frequently than people might know about. So Senator Watt, in an effort to try and create a conspiracy where there is no conspiracy, did himself great detriment. But, to be fair to Senator Watt, he is a new senator and he is from Queensland, so we shouldn't be too harsh!

There's been a lot of talk this afternoon about former Prime Ministers. We've heard talk about former Prime Minister Abbott; we've heard talk about former Prime Minister Turnbull. We even had Senator Abetz talking about former Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating. I will come back in a moment to what Paul Keating has had to say about Bill Shorten, because that is very, very revealing.

There is a powerful reason why senators on the opposite side want to talk about the affairs of the Liberal Party that took place last night. I might just reflect on those briefly. The reason Labor senators want to talk about the events of last night is that they want to hide from the fact, from the scrutiny, of what their policies might mean for the Australian economy and for Australian families and businesses.

What happened last night? The Liberal Party took a very sensible decision. It decided to reflect back to the Australian people what the Australian people have been asking for—that is, that the Australian people want to have the first and final decisions when it comes to electing Prime Ministers. So Scott Morrison with his leadership team and with the whips, of which I am one, made a decision to reflect back to the Australian community exactly what they want. There is no doubt that that will bring about some stability.

People will not be surprised to learn that, with Senator Stoker, I am someone who had some caution, some trepidation, about that. I am someone who is concerned about, or interested in, the long-term consequences of these sorts of rule changes for our party. But the facts are these: there was a discussion and a consensus was reached. Importantly, I think, over the medium term that will be taken as a sign by many in the community that the coalition is interested in returning to stability. My concerns about the rule change I have shared with my colleagues. There is no need to enunciate them in this place any further.

Let's talk about Labor for a brief moment. What you will not hear from Senator Kitching, if she makes a contribution shortly, and what you will not hear from Senator Keneally, if she makes a contribution shortly, is their plan for tax increases. Senator Cormann was quite right in question time today when he said Australians will face a very clear choice at the next election. They will face a choice between Scott Morrison, and his plan for a stronger economy, and Bill Shorten, and his plan for a weaker economy. You can't grow the economy if you are going to increase taxes in the way that Labor senators like Senator Keneally from New South Wales want to increase taxes.

Senator Keneally interjecting

There we go! Senator Keneally doesn't want to talk about taxes. Senator Keneally, what are Labor's seven deadly taxes? There is a $70 billion wage tax, to name one; a $7 billion budget repair levy, to name a second; new taxes on property, worth $29 billion, to name a third; new taxes for retirees, to name a fourth; a superannuation tax, to name a fifth; new taxes on family businesses, to name a sixth; and, of course, increased taxes on electricity.

You're not safe under Labor. If you're concerned about economic growth, if you want to give families and businesses some confidence in the future, the choice in May next year—between Scott Morrison and the coalition government and Bill Shorten and a Labor government—is stark. As a result of the decision taken by Liberals last night, if you elect Scott Morrison you will get Scott Morrison for the term of the next government. And I'll be voting for Scott Morrison, just to be very clear about that.

3:33 pm

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I agree that time can be quite an elastic concept in the Senate, but I also love that what might be tax policy is also elastic. Let's have a look at what has happened today under this Liberal government. There's been an announcement that company profits are six times wages growth. So Australians who are struggling to keep up with the cost of living—there would be many such people, perhaps, observing this chamber today—who might be having some trouble keeping up with the cost of living that has occurred under this coalition government, which would have people believe that they are good economic managers, should know it has doubled federal government debt, on Senator Cormann's watch, to over $500 billion. That's where he's up to. Remember, the government voted with the Greens to remove the debt ceiling: 'We are responsible economic managers, so we'll remove the debt ceiling. You don't need to worry about us at all.' What did they do? They doubled federal government debt. At some point, someone is going to have to pay that back.

I want to take note of the answers given by Senator Cormann to questions on the urgent and unplanned Liberal party room meeting last night. Since the rabble of the August coup—coup week, as we like to call it—Prime Minister Morrison has presented himself as some sort of reluctant leader, like he was Moses leading the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt. However, day by day it becomes clearer and clearer that he is actually more Niccolo Machiavelli in a baseball cap—that's what he is. He was slowly biding his time, waiting for his chance to Steven Bradbury the prime ministership—and, lo, he has succeeded.

During last month's Q&A appearance, Mr Turnbull slyly refused to answer whether Prime Minister Morrison had been acting in good faith during the leadership debacle. He's no longer holding back, and now we have the full display of the former Prime Minister telling us what he really thinks—not just on personalities in the Liberal Party but also, today, on energy policy. I'm sure he has been a great help to everyone. Yesterday it was reported that he told the New South Wales Liberal state executive that the current Prime Minister was delaying the election to keep his—I won't use the word he used—bottom in C1, the prime ministerial vehicle. But if Prime Minister Morrison was such a loyal deputy and believes these new changes are necessary, why didn't he advocate for them when Mr Turnbull was Prime Minister? Why did he previously say that regulating for culture is never effective?

As I say, time is an elastic concept in here. Let's go to why Senator Cormann said on ABC breakfast TV just this morning—that's many hours ago, so quite a long time ago for the government—'Obviously, we have been thinking about this for some time.' Now, how would one define 'some time'? If you were from the government, you would define it as, as he then goes on to say: 'The leadership group has been talking about this proposal last week.' As Harold Wilson, a twice-serving British Prime Minister, said, 'A week is a long time in politics,' but a week is an especially long time in politics for this government. But then Senator Cormann went on—my favourite part of his interview this morning—to say, 'We are very keen to ensure that people across Australia can have confidence that, if they elect Scott Morrison as Prime Minister at the next election, Scott Morrison will be the Prime Minister all the way through to the subsequent election.' I mean, you wouldn't believe these people. Why wouldn't you believe them? Because they have not actually told the truth about policy or about their own leadership machinations. We have not had a word of truth from them for some time.

There is perhaps a temptation for some to idealise the fallen Prime Minister and his virtue-signalling clan. He was a terrible Prime Minister. He has been a terrible former Prime Minister. He's only being exceeded in his terribleness by the current Prime Minister. The Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison maladministration has been a team effort that has doubled federal government debt in five years, a team effort that has allowed wages to flatline while company profits have grown six times faster and a team effort that has allowed energy policy to occupy every position on the political spectrum. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.