Senate debates

Thursday, 10 December 2020



8:54 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

It's that time of year, even if it doesn't always feel like it as we approach it. Across Australia this year it has been a time that, in some ways, brings to mind the Charles Dickens phrase from A Tale of Two Cities'the best and worst of times'. In Australia, as we approach the end of 2020 we can have enormous gratitude and thankfulness for the country in which we live and in which all Australians live. When compared to the rest of the world, our nation has come through what has been the most challenging period the world has faced since World War II far better than most others. We've done so with typical Australian resilience, capabilities and compassion.

It has been the worst of times for many around the world, including many in Australia. This year, as we pause, many of us will think of those who have lost loved ones as a result of COVID-19, those who have suffered loss—personal loss, financial loss, loss of job, loss of business—and the many challenges that many Australians have faced. Australians can look back, knowing that their resilience, their efforts and their coming together throughout this year have enabled many Australians to withstand the circumstances far better than the rest of the world, and that there is much to be thankful for but also much that we should be respectful of and mindful of as we pause and not only give thanks but also remind ourselves of the losses that have occurred.

In getting through this remarkable year, we in this place owe enormous gratitude to many. Whilst the world has faced a pandemic unlike any other for a century, this place has had to function in a way unlike at any other time in its history. We pay thanks first and foremost to all those who have enabled our parliamentary institutions that were never designed to face the type of environment we have—where travel became restricted, where ability for members to attend parliament became restricted—to function through it all. We have functioned as a result of the efforts of those who manage these places. We pay particular thanks to the parliamentary staff: to those in the Department of the Senate, led by our Clerk and all of the deputy clerks; and to the teams across the board and across the parliament who have enabled us to meet and to do what Australians have required in the most challenging of circumstances. They have adapted. We need only look around this chamber to see the large black screens staring back at us as a reminder that this is a very different image for the chamber than the one at the start of this year. In doing so, no doubt we have learnt much in terms of the way in which we can operate, particularly when it comes to the engagement of committees and other processes, to get the most efficient and effective use of our time.

I thank all the teams working across the parliament, not only the clerks and their assistants but all those across the parliamentary departments, and the attendants across the chamber, who have had to bear particular burdens of managing rearranged seating and restrictions in terms of access. We pay tribute to them, along with others who have had to do similar: the Comcar drivers, the security staff and the cleaners, who have all had to adapt to changed work patterns, regulations and restrictions in this building as a result of COVID-19. We acknowledge those in the background: the building maintenance, the Hansard staff and the various people working right across the building who make it all hum and tick, whether at a normal time or at an extraordinary time.

I want to place on record our thanks to, particularly, all staff of all senators. This has been a very challenging year for them. As Australians have been doing it tough, as measures and radical interventions have been put in place to keep people safe and to keep their economic position secure, our staff and the staff across many government departments and agencies have had to be on the front line responding to Australians in their hour of need, providing them with advice, with compassion and with assistance. I know that across all political offices and all political parties, our staff will have helped many constituents navigate the support that was available to them to get them through their toughest hours and times. I thank all of them as I thank all those in our Public Service for their work in stepping up, responding and often performing duties well outside of what they were employed or expected to do.

I acknowledge, particularly with nearly all of the state leaders in Canberra tonight, the fact that this year we've also had to call upon much cooperation between the states and the Commonwealth. The advent of the national cabinet, which has allowed for a faster, more responsive approach to Commonwealth-state cooperation than old COAG mechanisms did, has been a good thing. It is hopefully one of the lasting positive changes to come out of this terrible time. It's not perfect and, of course, the Federation still has its battles, but I do acknowledge that the states and their cooperation have been very important to all of the efforts across the board.

Returning to the Senate, of course, I have taken on the role as leader during the course of this year. I want to acknowledge, firstly, my predecessor, Mathias Cormann, and thank him for his leadership and service over many years, as we did at the time of his departure. I particularly also want to thank the current leadership team, Senator Cash and Senator Ruston. I thank the whips, led by Senator Dean Smith, and his team: Senator McGrath, Senator Brockman, Senator Perrin from the National Party, who have all done an outstanding job during the course of this year. Ours is a coalition, as we all know, and I particularly thank Senator McKenzie and our National Party friends for their partnership. I thank Bridget for her work alongside me in leading and working with the coalition and for all that you did in working with Mathias during a year that has been tough at times. To all of my Liberal colleagues, I thank you very much for the support that you have provided to Michaelia and me as we have stepped up into the leadership ranks. Across the board, I acknowledge the hard work in the Senate committees with the committee staff that all senators have performed in a range of different ways. I thank each and every one of you for that.

Looking around the chamber, I acknowledge that we have disagreements and they can be fierce disagreements at times. We've witnessed some of that even tonight, but it is also the case that in this chamber of this parliament ultimately nothing is achieved without cooperation. As fierce as the disagreements get at times, we all need to keep in mind that we need to find ways to work together to get things done for the betterment of our country. Our country can stand tall in the world as an influential nation, but one that faces very challenging times right now. Yes, we've stood up to the threats of COVID better than most, but we also find new strategic challenges in our region that will be present for some time to come. I congratulate Australians on the resilience they've shown this year. All members of the government, I'm sure all members of the Senate, are proud of the way in which Australians have adapted, responded and survived. We want to see them thrive and succeed in the years to come, and our cooperation in this place will be important to getting them through those years.

To those who will, as most Australians will, celebrate Christmas and the Christian Christmas, we wish you all every success, every happiness, every blessing in your celebrations. To those who will celebrate other festivities through this time, we wish you every happiness through your celebrations. To all Australians, we hope this is a time that people can give thanks for the presence of their loved ones, remember those who they have lost whether from COVID or other causes, throughout the course of the year, and come together to be grateful for being Australians, for being in our great country, and all commit to making sure that 2021 is a year in which the recovery that is underway helps us all on the journey to further success and prosperity. Mr President, thank you for your leadership through this great but challenging year, and we wish you, your loved ones and all senators a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

9:04 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the Senate for the opportunity to place some remarks on the record as we end the parliamentary year.

Much has been said about the challenges of 2020 and the impact of the pandemic on everyone's lives. Certainly the Senate has found some extraordinary ways to continue its work, but the adjustments all of us have made to our work have been trifling in comparison to the shock and challenges faced by so many of the people we serve: nearly a million Australians unemployed, 1½ million on JobKeeper and 1.8 million on JobSeeker by the end of the year; those lost to coronavirus and those who mourn their loss; the 685 Australians who died in residential aged care; and Australians who lost loved ones and homes in the bushfires of last summer. This has been a year that has been tough, a year defined by tragedy, loss and grief for too many of our fellow Australians.

Our job here is to do everything we can to help. Our positions carry great privilege, and, in return, they demand accountability. They demand responsibility to help and protect our fellow Australians. I'm very proud to lead the Labor team in this place, and I am grateful on their behalf to place some thanks and season's greetings on the record.

I'll start with you, Mr President. Can I say personally how much I've appreciated the opportunity to work with you again this year. This President is a principled, trusted custodian of the chamber. I'm grateful for your constructive and cooperative manner and your extraordinary efforts to maintain the operations of this place, including working with states to facilitate the movement of senators for parliamentary business. While occasionally we may not live up to the standards you set—only very occasionally!—your commitment to upholding them is to the benefit not just of this place but of the Australian democracy, and I know you understand that.

I want to thank the Deputy President and Chair of Committees, my dear friend Senator Lines, who does an enormous amount of work behind the scenes and also in the chamber as Deputy President and Chair of Committees. She brings a calm, practical and inclusive approach, and I think we saw that in a difficult debate last night. I thank her for that. I did tell her she wasn't allowed to leave! It is very important work, and I want to acknowledge her and thank her for her work.

To my counterpart, Senator Birmingham: obviously for Christmas we have a freshly minted Leader of the Government in the Senate. Senator Birmingham is the fourth leader I've faced—is that right? Somebody wrote that! Is that actually true? Can I wish him a successful and short stint as Leader of the Government in the Senate! It was a joke, Michaelia! She's looking so serious! I also acknowledge the Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Cash, and acknowledge her promotion to that role.

On my own side, can I first start with Senator Keneally. I am particularly grateful to my deputy, Senator Keneally, who is—and we saw it again this evening—a tireless, fierce advocate for the Labor cause. She is relentless in every aspect—in seeking to hold the government to account, for example, for its promise to have Australians who are stranded overseas home by Christmas. She knows personally the pain of being kept apart from family by the pandemic at the most difficult of times, and, through it, she has kept going. So, Kristina, I hope you have time with your family this Christmas and I hope you have the time and space to remember and celebrate your father.

I couldn't ask for better sisters to be in the trenches with than Senator Keneally and, of course, the Manager of Opposition Business, Senator Gallagher. Senator Gallagher has extraordinary skill, finesse and diplomacy in performing one of the most gruelling and complex jobs in the parliament. Her EQ is high; mine is not. She does her best to make up for it! Did you notice that my colleagues didn't laugh at that joke, by the way?

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

They're thinking, 'Am I supposed to laugh?' I particularly thank Katy for the critical role she's played in the COVID-19 select committee, which is one of the most far-reaching programs of work I can remember. Thank you for that. I also thank the staff of Senators Keneally and Gallagher, who are highly effective and diligent—dogged, at times—and a pleasure to work with.

I thank our Opposition Whip and Deputy Opposition Whips. Senator Anne Urquhart, Senator Ciccone and Senator McCarthy are a fantastic team, and I thank them and their staff. My staff have said, 'I hope the only bells you hear over Christmas are on Santa's sleigh!'

I thank my team for their commitment this year. It is a privilege to hold the position I hold, and it makes the job so much easier knowing I have such an incredibly committed, capable and talented group of individuals supporting our effort. Anthony Albanese said this week that this is the most talented Senate caucus he can remember, and he was right. So thank you for your work. To all colleagues in this chamber: in the spirit of the Christmas season, I extend my best wishes to all of you and to your families. Those who love us endure a great deal, and, without their care and support, we wouldn't be able to do our jobs.

I do want to thank the Clerk, Richard Pye; the Deputy Clerk, Jackie Morris; Tim Bryant; Rachel Callinan; Toni Matulick; John Begley; and all of the staff of the Department of the Senate. Thank you for the work you do for Australian democracy. Thank you, particularly, to the secretaries of committees and the staff of secretariats; I know how much your workload has increased. Thanks to the chamber attendants. We really appreciate the work you do and the way in which you keep this place going. I'm sorry my knee keeps hitting my button and you keep having to come over to see if I want anything!

Thanks to all at the Department of Parliamentary Services, with particular thanks to the Parliamentary Library, PBO, and, of course, Hansard, security, maintenance and ancillary staff who work to ensure the running of Parliament House. I always want to mention the cleaners. I'm grateful to the work of the hardworking cleaners. We know how essential their job is to the maintenance of our health and wellbeing, and they always deserve more than they are paid. Thanks to all who support what we do inside and outside the building, including the Comcar drivers, and I thank also the parliamentary security team and the AFP.

To the press gallery: these are hard times to work in the media, and I acknowledge the uncertainties and pressures you work under. But your work is so important, because there is no democracy without you. To staff of Labor senators, I want to express my thanks. We are privileged on this side—and I'm sure all senators would say this—to be supported by outstanding people. Their efforts are reflected in so much that we do—in the speeches we deliver, in the policies we develop, in the operation of the institution and, of course, in our ability to serve our constituents. For many staff it has been a very demanding year. I want to say that I recognise that personal sacrifice is, regrettably, often so much a part of the job of being a political staffer. We are all very grateful. I express my personal gratitude to my whole team, ably led by Tom Mooney.

Finally, to all the Labor members and supporters throughout Australia, including our friends in the labour movement: on behalf of the Senate Labor team, I extend our gratitude and our solidarity and I hope that the holiday season is a happy and safe one for you all. To those comrades in our movement who work inside and outside of this place in service of the Labor cause, who understand that Labor governments change the country and who are working to make a federal Labor government a reality: I thank you for your commitment, your values and your aspiration. I wish all a Merry Christmas.

9:13 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

What a year the world has had. On behalf of the Australian Greens, I express love and support to all Australians who have suffered this year. What a bin fire of a year.

To the formalities: here in the parliament, President, can we start by thanking you for the important work that you've done this year to keep the chamber mostly civilised and focused during a particularly chaotic and challenging time. This has been an extremely testing year for everyone, and you have personally done well to keep it ticking along, as has your family. You've been fair and patient. You must remember to buy the trampoline for the kids for Christmas!

I'd like to extend the Greens' thanks to the Clerk, Richard Pye; to the Deputy Clerk, Jackie Morris; and to all of the amazing staff at the Table Office and the Procedure Office. To Toni, to both Rachels and to everyone in the drafting office: thank you for your tireless work. To the Senate staff and, of course, the lovely attendants who keep this place ticking over—who, thankfully, don't have to bring us glasses of water anymore; we can get our own water now so that's halved their workload, at least in my instance—thank you very much for the work you do for us but mostly on behalf of the Australian people. You go about your business professionally and with purpose and with patience. From all of us, have a wonderful break over Christmas.

Thank you to the gardeners. They make this place look absolutely stunning, and they shine a little light onto how our public places should look. Being able to steal a few moments every so often to wander outside brings a much-needed perspective to our decision-making in this place.

I'd also like to thank the Parliamentary Budget Office, the Parliamentary Library, of course the COMCAR drivers, the security staff, the baristas, the chefs at the Trough, who make fantastic chips, and the Department of Parliamentary Services staff for the service you give us all hours of the morning, noon and night. Particular thanks, of course, to the cleaners—what a year to recognise the value of cleaners, teachers and health workers.

Thanks to the IT teams for their immense efforts in keeping democracy operating safely during a pandemic, particularly as we transitioned to remote parliament. Remote parliament was a long time coming, and you did a remarkable job in getting a bunch of technophobes, for the most part, to successfully dial in, sometimes with cats, pets and children in the background, which was also delightful to see. I look forward to future discussions about the opportunities for greater participation and diverse representation that remote parliament could provide.

Thank you to the colleagues from all sides of this chamber. Thank you for your commitment to our nation in performing these roles. We know it's not an easy job, and we acknowledge the work that you do to represent your constituents. In particular, thanks to the crossbench as well.

Thank you to the staff of all of you in this building. It's important that we keep those staff in this workplace safe from harassment and bullying and ensure that their interests are best protected. I look forward to working more on that collectively as we resume next year.

Thank you, of course, to all the engaged citizens in our electorates who contact us with stories, ideas and sometimes robust critiques. It's critical to democracy that we remain connected to the people that we represent.

I'd of course like to thank my wonderful Greens Senate team—all true friends and passionate advocates. A particular thanks to all of our Greens staff who keep us on track, and special mention to Clare, Colin, Rod, Jay, and to my staff, Jess and Justine, who come here to Canberra. We couldn't do any of this without you. It's been a big change this year for our party with a change of leadership. The wonderful member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, has handled this year marvellously despite a pandemic and working on the wrong side of the building. We were also pleased to welcome our fierce new senator, Lidia Thorpe, who, I might add, makes this place majority female for the first time in its history. I want to particularly thank Rachel, our Whip, for the power of work that she does not only to advocate never-endingly for vulnerable Australians but also to wrangle the bunch of us. Some of us are easier than others to wrangle. I think Rache is the best Whip in this place, and probably will be the best Whip that this place ever sees.

On a personal note, I want to say thank you to my daughters and my family for their love and support. The work of everyone in this place comes at a cost to our families, and none of us could do this without them. My oldest daughter graduated from primary school yesterday, and I'm very much looking forward to giving her a cuddle and celebrating tomorrow. I'm sure everyone's similarly in that boat.

Thank you all for the sacrifice and the commitment and the passion you bring to these roles. I'll just sign off by saying to those of you who don't believe in Christmas— not mentioning any names—happy non-denominational, gender-neutral, environmentally sustainable, socially responsible holidays. For the rest of you, happy Christmas!

9:18 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Wow! I believe in Christmas, but thank you very much. I'd like to associate the Nationals with all of the wonderful words that have been said tonight.

For regional Australia, 2020 has been a tough one. We started it with the drought—it's broken in a lot of places, which has been fantastic, and we've seen bumper seasons—then bushfires, floods and, obviously, COVID. If you're in a border town, you couldn't—as Senator Keneally had to experience—be with loved ones at very difficult times. You're separated. I know there are so many of us around this chamber and around our nation who are very thankful that premiers have finally opened the borders and that they can actually catch up with their very dear family and loved ones in this particular period.

Thanks to our government for actually making the tough decisions and steering our nation as best as possible to protect lives and livelihoods. I think, relative to the rest of the world, we can be very confident that the right decisions were made.

Thank you to the opposition for supporting our government in many of those very, very difficult programs that have supported broader Australia.

Thank you to our frontline workers with respect to COVID. It's scary sending your loved one onto the front line, and we just want to say thank you to them. Thank you to all the staff of Parliament House. You keep it ticking. It hasn't been an easy year. To the CFA and the RFSs, thank you.

Simon, thank you very much for your leadership of the government in the Senate, and I look forward to working with you very closely on behalf of our two parties within a strong coalition in 2021. Vale, Mathias, the legend, but he's been with us much—

Senator Wong interjecting

No—well, he's left. Okay, Penny, he's left the building.

Senator Wong interjecting

No, I'm not saying—okay. It's alright. It's late.

I want to say thank you to the fantastic National Party Senate team. We have rocked. We've done very, very well on behalf of our communities and the people who sent us here this year, and I'm really looking forward to you all getting a good rest and recuperation and coming back fighting in 2021. Thank you to Paul Murray for letting Matt arrive late to his daily Sky interview today. I just wish everybody in the chamber and all your families a very blessed and sacred Christmas season. Thank you.

9:21 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. If I could make some observations myself, I will commence by associating myself with all the comments of the four party leaders.

I've got a lot of thankyous to acknowledge this year, and I'm going to start with the people I think are the real custodians of the Senate in many ways, and that is the team of staff led by the Clerk, Richard Pye; the Deputy Clerk; the assistant clerks; and all the staff at the Department of the Senate—in particular, the committee staff. We know that, in a year like this, a parliament sitting matters. The staff have had to do extraordinary things to enable us to go about our work and undertake extraordinary workloads, and this parliament has successfully sat. The committee that Senator Wong mentioned, chaired by Senator Gallagher, with Senator Paterson, and with all parties represented on it, has undertaken a very serious amount of work, and this parliament has functioned—I might say unlike those of some of our states, where they have not been able to continue in the same way. That is a shared commitment across all sides, despite the occasional difference, that I have experienced this year in both houses.

We farewelled John Brown during the year. It does feel odd in for the first time in my 14 years to not be thanking John and his team of attendants. But to Steve and the team of attendants: thank you for all the work that you do.

In a year like this, more than most, we are reminded that we often take a lot for granted—the basic things we do. But, in this building in particular, I'd like to give particular thanks to the Department of Parliamentary Services, who don't always get the plaudits they deserve. That is for the cleaning staff, who we previously did not depend on to the same degree for our safety; the IT staff, who had to ensure this parliament could keep functioning in a matter of weeks without people travelling; and Broadcasting, who have enabled a rapid transition to virtual participation so that our work could keep going—to name just a few. We have asked a lot from them this year, and they have delivered.

I want to have a few personal thanks for people the Speaker and I have worked with on your behalf in the health departments—to Professor Michael Kidd and Dr Catherine Kelaher from the Commonwealth Department of Health. We have had fortnightly conferences with them that have involved everything from wearing masks to the seats we put you in to when we can sit to when Aussie's can open or you can use the gym. They have been available and have answered the most detailed questions for this unique workplace, which, like nowhere else in the country, was bringing people from all around our nation when others were not able to travel.

The ACT Health Directorate were exceptionally helpful. Occasional disagreements might have happened, but the officials in the Health Directorate facilitated the travel of people across state and territory borders where travel restrictions were put in place. I'd like to thank in particular Vanessa Dal Molin, who I worked with and who I can imagine other Victorian senators worked very closely with over the last six to eight months.

To the leaders and whips: for the very kind words said by Senators Birmingham, Wong, Waters and McKenzie, thank you on a personal level. To the whips also: we have had to have challenging, difficult, under-pressure discussions at various points this year, and our shared commitment to this Senate working and your belief that we and the officials are working on your behalf and the Senate's behalf have made that possible.

To the Deputy President, Sue Lines: thank you very much for your support and all the work that you have done, particularly in very long committee stages, very late, when I can't even come in and relieve you. To the Speaker, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the other place: this has been a year where we've had to do a lot more in some ways together in the operation of the parliament, because we could not take for granted that we could be here. I'd like to thank them. I know that work has been done across parties to ensure that we could come together.

To all senators: you have been very understanding. Arrangements have constantly changed. You have had to travel at short notice, you have had to not travel at short notice and some of you have been turned around while travelling. For your understanding of these arrangements and your personal support for me and the work I do, I just want to say a very big thank you for your flexibility and understanding. To all our staff: it has been a challenging year. To my staff, in particular, who I hadn't seen for several months up until the borders opened, being here in Canberra: my deepest appreciation for you being able to work in very challenging circumstances—given they were based in Melbourne.

I want to particularly thank my Victorian colleagues. I'm not just being parochial. Most of you have had a tougher year than others because of your situation in Melbourne. Your staff have had to work from home. You haven't been able to travel. You have had limitations placed on you at home. I know that has made your job more challenging, so I want to thank you in particular.

Our families—all of our families—who, here in the toughest of all years, have felt our absence probably more than any other year have shown an enormous understanding of what we do. They've appreciated that we view our roles as important. And I know I speak on behalf of all senators when I say thank you for understanding our absence in this year in particular—although one whip did say to me that he wasn't sure whether his family wanted him as present as he had been this year either!

One thing that this year has done to me is to make me think we may never know what burdens, sadnesses or challenges other people have and, in a year like this in particular, we don't necessarily know which of our colleagues have had family losses, illnesses, job losses and all the challenges that all Australians have experienced this year. This year has been a time to remember that and to remember, heading into a season that may not be as joyous for all of us in this building, let alone across the community, empathy is something we can take away from this year, I hope.

Now, on a personal level, I want to thank my own family—Helen, Nick and Ben—and Helen's parents, John and Fran, who have carried a burden for us when we've come here on very short notice, and who even let us use their home to quarantine in so that we could stay together. I want to say particular thanks to my own mother, who has borne a very difficult year with stoicism I don't think I could muster.

But I just want to finish with this: merry Christmas to everyone. Normally, the focus is on the 'merry Christmas' bit, but let us just go away saying let us all not just have a very merry Christmas but a very happy new year, and hope for a very different 2021. Thank you, all.