Thursday, 18 June 2020
Senate Temporary Orders
I seek leave to move a motion, as is being circulated in the chamber, relating to general business notice of motion No. 705, concerning an amendment to standing order 66. The motion reads: 'That the Senate note that neither the government nor the opposition has consulted with the crossbench in relation to their proposal to amend standing order 66 to vastly reduce motions, in a very antidemocratic move.'
I condemn that proposal in the strongest possible terms as it amounts to an attack on democracy, restricts debate and free speech and undermines the important work of the Senate in advancing policy, constituent and transparency matters, and I ask that general business notice of motion No. 705 be discharged from the Notice Paper.
Leave not granted.
Pursuant to contingent notice, I move:
That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent me from moving a motion relating to the consideration of a matter, namely a motion to give precedence to a motion relating to general notice of motion No.705.
What we saw yesterday was the two big parties not even speak to anyone on the crossbench about their collusion in seeking to shut down the crossbench's ability to do its job to hold the government and, at times, the opposition to account. What's being proposed, in a cosy little deal between the two big parties, is to limit our ability, as senators, to move motions to just one formal motion a week. That includes motions to disclose documents—orders for the production of documents. For example, this week I moved a motion for an order for the production of documents pertaining to yet more election rorts by this government—the community development grants—but I also moved a motion calling for a federal corruption watchdog. Both were transparency measures. Under this proposed change, which both big parties support, I wouldn't be allowed to do that; they wouldn't give me permission to use my ability, as a senator, to represent Queensland and to push for more transparency and democracy in this place. They would be the arbiters of what the crossbench can do and when we can use our power to hold them to account. They did not even have the decency to consult. They didn't consult with the Greens, they didn't consult with Centre Alliance, they didn't consult with Senator Lambie and they didn't consult with Pauline Hanson's One Nation. This is absolutely a move to shut down the democratic right of senators on the crossbench to do our jobs, and we will oppose it with the strongest possible powers that we have. We will do that today and we will do that on the next day of sitting. We will do it on every day of sitting until these people come to the table, like adults, and discuss possible improvements to the program. But that didn't happen. It was just yet another cosy deal between the two big parties to change the way the democracy of this chamber works.
We know they don't like transparency. That's why we still don't have a federal corruption watchdog, despite the fact that the government agreed 18 months ago to create one. We know they don't like being held to account on their policy positions. I've got news for you: sometimes it is inconvenient for you to be held to account on your policy positions, but it's also democratic, and the convenience of the two big parties should not be running this place. We have a job to do here to represent our constituents, to further the public interest and to work in the nation's interest, and the two big parties are sick of the inconvenience of the crossbench.
I've got some more news for you: there is a reason why the vote support for the big parties is the lowest that it has ever been in history, and it will continue to drop with this sort of antidemocratic behaviour. You don't want to be held to account for your policy positions. I move motions, for example, about protecting the reef and giving coal workers a future in clean energy and other industries. You don't want to be held to account.
We all know the massive donations that flow into the coffers of both the big political parties from big business, from vested interests, from people who want to buy policy outcomes. We draw attention to that because we think it's cooked. What's your answer? You don't want to be held to account. You're embarrassed by that and you should be embarrassed by that. The mature response is to have a debate about how the program can move more smoothly, but, no, there's just an absolute glass-jaw approach from both sides of the chamber here.
We will oppose this with everything we've got, and I believe I speak for the crossbench in saying that. Senator Lambie and Senator Patrick, I'm sure, will have contributions to make, and I imagine Senator Roberts and perhaps Senator Hanson might also share and join in in contributing on these views.
Motions perhaps might sound a bit procedural to anyone that might be listening, but they are crucial and they have delivered things like the banking royal commission. They have led to things like marriage equality. They have led to the disability royal commission. Moving motions is not just some jaunt that we undertake to draw important issues to the attention of the big parties and to let the populists know about where we all stand. Motions get things done and they can lead to legislative reform. Yes, they're inconvenient, and yes of course you don't want to be held to account by having to vote on what your actual policy positions even are—except of course if you're the Labor Party, as you don't have any policy positions as yet because they're under review, so it's not clear what you stand for. Well, the public deserves to know what you stand for. This chamber of democracy has a very strong crossbench. We deserve a voice, and we will continue to fight for it.
There are some facts that need to be put on the table in relation to the motion that Senator Waters is speaking about. The facts are that the motion being brought to the chamber today in the names of Senator Cormann and Wong is not a motion that will prevent any senator from bringing motions forward to this chamber. What it does do—
. It does not prevent senators from bringing motions to the Senate. What it does do is limit the ability of senators to move motions that other senators cannot debate. That is the point of formal motions.
Honourable senators interjecting—
I note that I listened to Senator Waters in silence.
Madam Deputy President, I want to raise a point of order, and the point of order is that Senator Birmingham is providing completely inaccurate information to the chamber and to the Senate. He should at least tell the truth.
I do note that I listened to Senator Waters in silence, and the Australian Greens seem incapable of returning that courtesy. In fact it is a lack of courtesy that has led to the motion being brought to this chamber by Senators Cormann and Wong. It's a lack of courtesy in the sense that too many in this place have sought to use and abuse the motions process to present motions that, by the manner in which they are presented to this chamber, do not enable senators to debate them. Those on the crossbench routinely bowl up complex, sensitive or divisive motions and then expect that all 76 members of the Senate should either vote for them or against them without any senator being able to have their say on those matters.
It is a fundamental tenet of our democracy that sensitive issues ought to be able to be debated, and in no way does the procedural motion being put forward today by the government and the opposition prevent time in the Senate agenda for the debate of sensitive matters or for the debate of motions in their proper way, as scheduled. There are many opportunities in the Senate program for debate to occur. There is time, indeed, in this afternoon's agenda for debate to occur. There is time in Monday's agenda for debate to occur. There are procedures and processes to bring motions on for debate. But what has become unacceptable in this place is that hours are spent every single sitting day on motions that deny senators their right to debate the motions, and those motions have become increasingly complex and sensitive and have moved away from the intent of that period of the agenda. The Senate initially established this part of the program with the clear intention that it was to deal with matters that did not require debate. Senators were accorded that right for matters that were noncontroversial, that did not necessarily require debate to be dealt with, but that right has gradually been abused by more and more members of this place. That is the lack of courtesy that, unfortunately, has brought us to this point.
This motion that is being put forward is calm, reasonable and rational, and the crossbench are actually accorded greater opportunity, in a proportional sense, than the opposition or the government. The approach that's being put forward has been crafted so that crossbenchers will receive the same opportunities as the opposition or the government to move motions and the same number of motions without debate occurring. That is a perfectly reasonable approach to take. I would urge the crossbench to realise that this is about trying to strike the right balance. There will still be plenty of time to move those motions and plenty of time for priority matters to be dealt with.
The idea promulgated by Senator Waters that, somehow, the presentation of motions in this place without there being any debate attached to them has led to royal commissions or same-sex marriage occurring is a ridiculous proposition. These substantial changes are achieved by legislation in this place, and the abuse of formal business motions and the time that has been taken up by them over recent years simply curtails the time available in this chamber for legislation to be debated; it curtails the time available for real reform to occur. This is about taking that time back for the Senate, as it should be for empowering individual senators to have their say in a thoughtful and orderly way.
This is an important reform to a part of the day that has completely got out of control. Senator Birmingham is absolutely right; this is about the part of the day in which we should be dealing with motions that do not require debate. Increasingly, over recent years, this part of the day has been used and abused for a purpose that it was never intended for. Let's be very clear. There is no limit to the amount of motions that can be moved—no limit. You can move as many motions—
For the information of all senators—in particular, Senator Rice—let me repeat it, again. There is no limit, no limit at all, to the number of motions that can be moved. There will be a limit to the number of motions that can be considered without debate. There will be a limit to the number of motions that can be considered without amendment, because the only way you can amend a formal business motion is with the leave of every single senator in this chamber. To give you a parallel, there is no limit to the number of questions that you can ask—no limit—but there is a limit to how many questions can be considered within one hour between 2 pm and 3 pm every day during a sitting week. That is the orderly business of the Senate. We're in a chamber where nobody has a majority. We do have to work with each other and we do have to treat each other with the appropriate level of courtesy in making this place work.
An honourable senator interjecting—
Well, the time of the day when we're dealing with formal business motions no longer works. It hasn't worked for some time. We have resisted, for a long time, the need to reform this part of the day. We have been reluctant to touch it. But you know what? We've been dealing with more than 50-odd motions, with hours and hours of motions that should not be dealt with without debate and without—
Again, whether it is speeches on legislation or whether it is the handling of questions in question time or whether it is across a whole range of areas, we are making arrangements procedurally to ensure that this place can still get the business of the nation done, and this part of the day, quite frankly, was inappropriately interrupting getting the business of the nation done. There is nothing unusual in putting some frameworks and processes and disciplines in place, and, as Senator Birmingham also rightly pointed out, in drafting this motion the government and the opposition have been incredibly courteous and respectful to the crossbench because we are giving the crossbench a disproportionate amount of opportunity to move formal motions. If it was reflected purely on proportionality grounds—purely on the grounds of how many senators are represented in this chamber as a result of the election by the Australian people—you would have fewer opportunities to move motions without debate.
I understand that, for political purposes, it suits crossbenchers on occasions to move motions where they don't want to have a debate where the details can be nuanced and fleshed out in a properly argued argument. Maybe sometimes there is a political interest in trying to simplify things into yes and no. But, to be honest, the nation is not in a better space the day after those sorts of motions are dealt with when they can't actually be dealt with by yes and no.
This formal motions space was there for a particular purpose. It has been used and abused. It was in need of reform. This is a temporary measure. It is a measure that we are putting in place until the end of the sittings in May 2021. The Procedure Committee will have the opportunity to review the operation of the new arrangements, and of course motions on legislation and motions in relation to committee business are excluded.
The fundamental point that I'll repeat again is that there is no limit to the amount of motions that you can put forward, but there will be a limit to the amount of motions that you can bring to this floor for them to be dealt with without debate and without being able to amend them unless you have the leave of every single senator in this chamber. We think it is a sensible reform to try and improve the operation of that part of the day. Let's just remind ourselves we are here to get the business of the nation done. We're not here to waste our time playing politics.
Can I first indicate that Labor have moved this motion with the government because we want formal business to be consistent with the purpose for which it was designed—that is, as a way of dealing in a timely manner with routine and uncontroversial matters. That is the purpose for which formal business was designed. The reality is that in recent times—in fact, for longer than recent times—it simply has not met that standard. It has become a time where senators have been forced to take positions on a large volume of complex and sensitive matters.
Senator Waters interjecting—
I'll take that interjection. You say it's about accountability. You know what your business model is? The Greens come in here with motions that they know are controversial, where the majority of the motion is something Labor can support. They put one part in that the Labor Party can't. We cannot debate it. We cannot amend it. And then you run a social media campaign against us on the basis of the one thing. That's your political business model. Well, we are tired of it. We are tired of being wedged for no political purpose other than the Greens' desire to run a wedge campaign on issues where, in large part, we might agree. They are not interested in social change, they are not interested in political change. They are just interested in a bit of wedge politics. I didn't come into parliament just to play some wedge politics. The Labor Party doesn't come to parliament just to play wedge politics. We come to try and change the nation—that's what we're here for—
As I said, the courtesy and respect that some at the end of the chamber referred to has not been our experience of this part of the program. We are happy to have a discussion about how this is to be reformed. In fact, this has been going on since 2003. So you want to talk about a lack of consultation? This has been before the Procedure Committee since 2003, and there has not been agreement across the chamber. If the Greens and the rest of the crossbench want to have a genuine consultation about how to make sure this part of the program returns to the purposes for which it was intended—which is routine and uncontroversial—we are up for it. But I suspect that that is not the purpose they want this part of the program to be used for.
I want to make this point. In 2020 the Senate has considered 322 motions at an average of 15 per day. We are currently on track to consider 650 motions for the year at this rate. In 2019 there were 486 motions considered in 40 sitting days. In 2008 there were 294 motions considered. Time spent on consideration of formal business has also substantially increased. It has risen from 22 minutes per day in 2012 to 34 minutes per day in 2018. On 11 June it went for 1½ hours and on 12 May it went for an hour and 17 minutes. And, of course, the length of the motions has increased.
Also increasing is the way in which the Senate handles formal motions. In 2008 there was on average one division per day on formal motions. In 2019 there were 7.7 divisions on average. Statements have increased from 1½ per day on average in 2008 to 20.3 in 2019. So for part of the program that is supposed to be about routine business we have 20 statements by leave—that's a debate. If you want a discussion about how we have more substantive debates about policy, which can be contested, then I and the Labor Party are happy to have a discussion about how we facilitate that. But this part of the program is being used for purposes for which it was not intended.
I would draw the attention of the Senate to two points. There are a number of aspects of business which are exempted from the temporary order—business of the Senate, disallowances, references to committees, consideration of legislation and so forth. We have also indicated that this should be a temporary order and we can have a discussion in the Procedure Committee. If the crossbench are up for sensible changes, we are absolutely willing to have that discussion. But we do need to resolve the fact that this part of the program is not working for the purposes for which it was intended.
Senator Roberts interjecting—
No—that the Senate intended, Senator Roberts.
I rise to indicate that Centre Alliance won't support the suspension, in the interest of the orderly conduct of business. However, if the Greens are successful, we will certainly support the motion. One of the difficulties that Centre Alliance has here, and it's been mentioned by Senator Waters, is that this motion did appear without consultation and was something of a surprise. I fear that, if we don't resolve this, we will have this sort of disorder propagated through sitting weeks. I think that is problematic.
I think we do need to change this part of the business of the Senate. It is taking a long time and it is complicated. It takes a lot of time, particularly for crossbenchers. Small parties are working through all of the motions overnight, trying to work out what our positions will be. It consumes time well beyond what takes place in the chamber. There is a need to have change.
However, the current motion does have some concerning parts. Things like orders for production of documents are a tool for oversight, and we shouldn't really constrain the Senate in relation to that particular function. There are some other issues in the context that, if we were to have a roster system, which would have to be developed, and there is an urgent issue that I wish to raise on behalf of South Australians, it may be that I potentially would have to wait four or five days in order to be able to put a motion to the Senate. If there's a break or a recess in the sittings, it may well flow over to months later. I don't think that's acceptable. I would propose to the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate that they postpone the motion for today and we work over the next four weeks to try to find a reasonable outcome.
In my conversations with the crossbench last night and the Greens, everyone seems to think there is a problem. Everyone wants a solution to it. I actually respect what the government and opposition have said in terms of how this potentially doesn't fully limit some of things that we want to do, but that's not fully explained in the motion. There could be greater clarity in the motion. So I would ask the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate to consider postponing the motion just for one day, allowing us to consult; let's try to find a solution and work together on this.
I'm fairly new in the Senate, as people know, so I just want to first of all acknowledge some comments. I was delighted to see Senator Wong using data. I agree with her and the government. In fact, we mentioned to Senator Ruston that this segment of the day is out of hand. It's completely out of hand. I also want to compliment Senator Wong on saying that she is up for a discussion on this. I concur with Senator Patrick that we would love to discuss that.
We do not support this at the moment as it stands, but we would welcome the postponement of this to have a sensible discussion. Senator Hanson and I have been suppressed many times in this, as have the Greens, but we would be the first to acknowledge that this session has got out of order. We want to fix it. I look at question time and I see that as a rabble. I see that as complete disrespect of the people of Australia, who elected us to come in here and represent them. Question time is completely disrespectful to the people of this country. This session on formal motions has also become disrespectful not only to the people but to the parliament. So I would ask Senator Cormann and Senator Wong to postpone this and have a meaningful discussion about improving this section and doing it in a way that is respectful.
I'll be brief, but I wanted to put on record the National Party's support for this motion. We support this motion because it will make for a better operation of this place. I think it's regrettable that we have to take this action. It would be much better and more sensible if parties in this place did not abuse the liberties that are provided to them as individual senators. That clearly has not been the case over many years. Over many years, this particular item of business on our agenda has been abused. I think it reached the apogee of that abuse a few years ago, when Greens senators moved a motion—one of many they moved that day—to applaud Go Home on Time Day. That was a motion we had in this place, just to applaud Go Home on Time Day, a motion which held us back from going home! The number of motions that the Greens move has become absurd.
All we are saying through this motion is that priority must be given now to what is important, and that is the case for questions, that is the case for adjournment speeches and that is the case for any item of business on the agenda which is time limited. We all have to prioritise what's important that we speak about. I respect the position that Senator Wong has put about the original intention of this business, but we are not saying that we must stick to that rule. The crossbenchers will have their four motions a day. I fully expect that some of them will continue to be wedge motions, but they're just going to have to prioritise what is important so that we can get back to the business of this place in looking after the Australian people.
I also ask you to postpone this by a day, please, so that we can all be adults and show the rest of Australia that we can be adults and go and sort this out over the next four or five weeks. You have problems with this motion. The production of documents shouldn't be included. If you co-sponsor, you lose a mark. Tasmanians elected me to be their independent representative, and I don't abuse the system. I don't put motions up very often, but, if I, like Senator Patrick, have to wait a week to get that motion out and it is time-critical, then we've got a problem here.
If you want to talk about problems here and about wasting time, go out and ask the people of Australia what they think about your dorothy dixers, to sell yourselves. If you've got something to sell, go and do what the rest of us have to do and get out there and do it. If you're talking about things that are important and you're running dorothy dixers, trying to sell yourselves in here, then maybe we need to talk about that.
We know that we've got a problem in here, and we can admit that. But, please, out of respect to the crossbench, give us four or five weeks so we can talk about this, so we can do it like adults and make sure we're all in agreeance. It's no good coming in here like a bunch of bullies, both of you, and bulldozing us. You know there are a lot of moves—we can hold this up. We can do this all day today. It does not help when you've got three critical crossbenchers sitting in here and you're bulldozing us, without at least doing the right thing. This is just stupidity at its best—absolute stupidity. I'm sure Labor is loving it, because it's you people over there that need our vote.
So, please, for goodness sake, let's be adults. We're asking you to hold back one day so we can all go back to the table over the next four or five weeks. Like we said, we know there is a problem with these motions. But, out of respect to the crossbench—it doesn't matter which party or Independent they are—I'm asking you to hold this back a day. Otherwise, I tell you, anything you want done today is not going to get done today either. Alright? We all need practice in making moves in here. We've got all day. So, please, hold it back for a day.
I seek leave to move motion 705, in relation to a variation to the standing orders, now.
Leave not granted.
That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent general business notice of motion No. 705 being moved immediately and determined without amendment or debate.
I also move:
That the question be now put.
I, and on behalf of Senator Wong, move:
(1) That the following variations to the standing orders have effect as a temporary order until the last sitting day in June 2021:
(a) at the end of standing order 66, add:
(5) The following additional requirements apply to the consideration of general business notices of motion as formal motions:
(a) Senators may make (or have made on their behalf) only one request for formality in any sitting week.
(b) No more than 12 motions may be dealt with as formal motions on any sitting day, comprising no more than four proposed by Government senators, four proposed by Opposition senators, and four proposed by minor party and independent senators.
(c) The motions to be considered shall be notified to the President.
(d) The allocation of motions to be taken as formal amongst minor party and independent senators each day shall be determined by the President and, across the course of a sitting week, shall be as nearly as practicable proportional to the numbers of those minor party and independent senators in the Senate.
(e) The restrictions in paragraph (5) do not apply in respect of motions for the consideration of legislation (including the introduction of bills) or the conduct of Senate or committee business (including the appointment of a select committee).
(b) After standing order 76(7), insert:
(7A) A general business notice of motion shall not exceed 200 words, unless it is a motion:
(a) for the consideration of legislation or the conduct of Senate or committee business (including the appointment of a select committee), or
(b) proposing an order for the production of documents.
(2) That the Procedure Committee review the operation of this order, and report to the Senate by the last sitting day in May 2021.
I seek leave to move a motion pertaining to the subject matter that has just been dealt with in general business notice of motion No. 705, relating to the conduct of the chamber and the ability of crossbenchers to move motions with formality and debate them in the normal practice.
I'm going to look to the Clerk, and I am happy to be corrected. I am looking at standing orders 86 and 87. Standing order 87 states:
An order, resolution, or vote of the Senate may be rescinded, but not during the same session unless 7 days' notice is given—
Amongst other requirements, and standing order 86(1) states:
A question shall not be proposed if it is the same in substance as any question which has been determined during the same session, unless the order, resolution, or vote on such question was determined more than 6 months previously or has been rescinded.
Paragraph (2) refers to disallowance of instruments, which I don't deem as relevant. So, I do not consider such a motion to be in order, Senator Waters. I am happy to be corrected by the Clerk. But I consider that standing order 87 prevents the consideration of that without notice. The Clerk has, very happily from my perspective, concurred with my on-the-run interpretation.
Leave not granted.
Noting that, pursuant to contingent notice, I move:
That so much of standing orders, including the one you have just referenced, be suspended as would prevent me from moving a motion to discuss matters pertaining to the cross bench doing its job to hold this government to account, in the normal course of business in this chamber.
You are seeking to suspend the standing order I have just relied upon. I do consider that motion to be in order; however, I will, after this consideration, foreshadow that, as I have done on previous rulings when the Senate has, on a number of occasions, expressed a will on a particular matter, it is within the realm of the chair to refuse to entertain further disruptions to the program of business to reconsider the same matter. On this issue I do consider that motion to suspend standing orders, on this occasion, to be in order.
I seek leave to move a motion relating to the capacity of senators to raise matters in the Senate that are important to their constituents.
Leave not granted.
That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent Senator McKim from moving a motion relating to the capacity of senators to raise matters in the Senate that are important to their constituents.
Senator McKim, as I've foreshadowed previously and consistent with rulings that I have given and that past presidents have given, where the Senate has repeatedly expressed its will on a matter I will not entertain further attempts to suspend or interrupt the business of the Senate. At this point I'm not going to accept that motion as being in order.