Thursday, 24 June 2021
Senate Temporary Orders
That the Senate agree to the following amendments to the temporary orders relating to formal business:
(1) Amend standing order 57, as follows:
At the end of paragraph (1)(a)(ia), add:
(ib) At 1.30 pm, statements pursuant to standing order 57(4)
At the end of paragraph (1)(b)(i), add:
(ia) At 1.30 pm, statements pursuant to standing order 57(4)
Omit "12.45 pm", substitute "12.15 pm"
At the end of paragraph (1)(c)(ii), add:
(iia) At 1.30 pm, statements pursuant to standing order 57(4)
Omit "11.45 am", substitute "11.15 am"
Omit "12.45 pm", substitute "12.15 pm"
At the end of paragraph (1)(d)(vii), add:
(viia) At 1.30 pm, statements pursuant to standing order 57(4)
Omit "12.45 pm till 2 pm", substitute "12.15 pm till 1.30 pm"
At the end of the standing order, add:
(4) At 1.30 pm each day, for a period of not more than 30 minutes, senators may make statements without any question before the chair, provided that a senator shall not speak for more than 2 minutes and, if a division is called for it shall be taken at a later hour of the day after the time for such statements.
(2) Amend the temporary order amending standing order 66, agreed to as a temporary order on 18 June 2020, as follows:
Omit paragraphs (5) and (6), substitute:
(5) A request for the consideration of general business notices of motion as formal business shall only be recognised in respect of motions for:
(a) the consideration of legislation (including the introduction of bills);
(b) the conduct of Senate business;
(c) the conduct of committee business (including the appointment of a select committee); and
(d) proposing an order for the production of documents (including proposing further action in relation to an order for the production of documents).
(3) Amend standing order 76(8), as follows:
At the end of the paragraph, add:
", including to ensure that motions meet the definition of a particular category of business or are eligible for consideration as formal business."
(4) The amendments in paragraphs (1) to (3) shall have effect as a temporary order until the last sitting day of 2021;
(5) The temporary order amending standing order 76 restricting the length of general business notices to 200 words (with exemptions), agreed to as a temporary order on 18 June 2020, shall take effect as a permanent order.
In doing so, I wish to provide some context, briefly, and some explanation. In my time in this chamber, the consideration of formal motions has, over a period of time, become one of the most divisive, dysfunctional and disorderly elements of the Senate consideration each day.
That's not a point of order. The speaking times are set in the standing orders. The limitation of debate was set by the Senate today. I can only imagine that more interjections and points of order will reduce the time for debate. But they are the rules. Senator Birmingham.
I intend to limit my remarks. As I said, consideration of formal business has, over the 14 years of my time here, become one of the most divisive, dysfunctional and disorderly elements of the day. The process for formal motions was originally intended to allow the consideration of noncontroversial items, to allow consideration relating to the smooth running of the Senate. Instead, it has become a process where we have seen motions used for the purposes of race-baiting. We've seen motions that are engaging in the most sensitive of conscience vote issues. We've seen motions in relation to complex foreign policy matters. We've seen significant policy questions that, frankly, cannot be simplified into a few sentences, yet senators attempt to do so in putting such motions.
The conduct of this section of the day, where a sensitive or complex issue can be listed with just a single day's notice and then all senators expected to vote on it without any explanation, debate or consideration, has become the antithesis of what a parliamentary chamber should be like. As we know, the Senate and senators, particularly through the Procedure Committee, have long considered and debated ways to try to address the problems with the dysfunctionality of this element of the day. An attempt was made to limit parts of that. Unfortunately, the attempt to limit the number of motions in an effort to try to create a more orderly approach has only resulted in yet more dysfunction and disorder. So consideration has been ongoing in terms of how to achieve reform that will provide for greater order in the chamber whilst not limiting the ability of senators to make a stance and assay themselves.
An honourable senator interjecting—
The proposal that is put forward is to limit such motions to their original intent in so far as they deal with procedural questions before the Senate, including the establishment of committees, including holding the government to account through matters such as the order for production of documents. There will be no such limits in relation to those process matters and considerations under the motion before the Senate. The government will still be held to account firmly through those elements.
The motion seeks to create a new half-hour opportunity, each and every day, for senators to make two-minute statements. This will allow any senator to make a statement on whatever matter, as controversial as they wish, but without expecting every other senator in this place—with no notice and no debate—to have to then form an opinion on that senator's controversial statement. Each senator will be able to have that opportunity.
Honourable senators interjecting—
Senator Lambie interjecting—
It is the government's intention to make sure, through the allocation of these spots, that any different party entity or independent entity represented in this chamber who wishes to use that slot during each day has an opportunity to do so. The government will do that whilst noting that others may wish to claim their right to proportionality within the allocation of those slots. We wish to ensure that senators have the chance to have their say without compromising the rights of other senators in the way in which they engage.
There are other technical amendments in the motion which ensure that senators' statements time, as it currently exists on a Wednesday, is in no way limited and continues to exist per ordinary business, and similarly in relation to the consideration of non-controversial business. The government will continue to engage in relation to the allocation of these slots and with other senators in good faith about how other parts of the business, such as general business, can be used to provide the best possible outlet for senators to participate in a robust parliamentary procedure but without compromising the rights of their colleagues.
I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly to this motion, and the opposition will be supporting it. This motion will deal with a part of the program that, as the Leader of the Government has outlined, has been dysfunctional and divisive every single day that I have been in this place, and it is getting worse. It is also an issue that's been on the agenda of the procedure committee, for discussion and reform, for the entire time I've been in this place, because it constantly gets raised as a dysfunctional and divisive part of the program that doesn't work. This proposal actually gives more senators the opportunity to speak—60 new speaking spots a week—and senators have unlimited opportunity to put in motions. These are 60 spots to raise issues on behalf of your community or issues that matter to you, on a daily basis, that can be raised in this chamber and dealt with.
Honourable senators interjecting—
I hear the interjections, 'But there are no votes.' That goes to the issue of how this part of the program has been used. Formal business was used initially for motions that could be agreed across the chamber and put without debate. That was the origin of it. It has been used for the opposite effect, for the entire time I've been in this place. It has been used for motions that are complex, that are complicated and that are often deeply felt by senators in this place. And senators in this place are asked—without the opportunity to debate, without the opportunity to discuss—to get into either a yes or a no camp, without it even being explained why they're going there. Then that is weaponised, outside of this place, to attack other senators. That is exactly what it's about, and we know that's why you're angry. We know that you're angry because the issue of the vote is what you treasure the most—as opposed to genuinely raising issues, having the opportunity to speak, which is being provided by this motion.
That is what's happening here. We have more spots for speaking. More spots for backbenchers who might not have that opportunity to speak are now being provided to people. We have tried, over the past year, since the other reforms came in, to have a sensible way forward on motions. We have raised it. I have raised it repeatedly with people. We have now had senators denying formality to anyone who wants to move a motion—gagging people, refusing them the right to move motions. That's where we are now. This deals with that, and gives every opportunity for every senator to actually speak and raise their issue. What it doesn't do is force people to vote yes or no on things that are often contested and complicated and that require debate. It is a dysfunctional part of this program. This temporary order looks to address that, and we look forward to working with parties across the chamber on its implementation. If it doesn't work, it can be reconsidered, but this is the most sensible way forward at this point in time. It's a temporary order, and, again, the extension of friendship and support goes out to everyone, to try to make this work as best as possible—because it hasn't to date.
This is an act of bastardry by the two major parties. That's plain and simple. This complicated motion came in at 4.45 pm. It's now 5.25 pm. We haven't had time to properly read this. We agreed in the Procedure Committee that this proposal would go out for comment to senators. Guess when it went out? Yesterday morning. Then, yesterday afternoon, what happened? Senator Duniam came in with a handwritten note saying he will bring in a proposal tomorrow to deal with motions. We came in this morning—no motion, nothing. They were still making it up. Then what happened? We got in at 4.45 pm and there was the motion, the motion where the majors gang up to silence the crossbench. That is outrageous. They know that very well. Labor have already been absenting themselves from the chamber when they can't make a decision on these motions. They disappear out the door because they don't want to be held accountable by the electorate.
Let's look at some of the things that have been achieved through motions: the disability royal commission; the banking royal commission; action on petrol sniffing. Those are the sorts of things that have been achieved through using motions, because that is how you get pressure on the government and pressure on the opposition—whoever is in government. This has happened on both sides of the chamber, when both the major parties have been in government. They don't want to be held accountable, and that's what this is about, folks. For those listening out there, these two major parties do not want to be held accountable.
This is one of the levers that we use, through a democratic process, to try to achieve change. And we have. We have achieved change this way. By bringing motions into this place, we achieved the banking royal commission. We brought motions into this place for a long time on violence and abuse against disabled people and veterans. We wouldn't have got action if we hadn't been able to bring those motions to this chamber.
This is an act of bastardry carried out by the major parties. It is simply outrageous. We will fight this. We were supposed to be considering this at the end of the first sitting week in August. But what the government and the opposition—the so-called opposition—want to do is to deal with it now, in the dying hours of the last week of sitting in June. They think that everyone will forget before we get back here in August. We're not going to forget it. We're going to make sure the public remember what these two parties are doing to democracy in this country by ramming this through in the last hours of the last sitting day of the winter session. It is outrageous.
I'll just make a few remarks. I heard Senator Birmingham use the word 'reform'. I've come to realise, over many years of listening to governments in this country, that that word is used to misrepresent what is going to happen. It implies it is good for us all. It is not. It is a misrepresentation. The second point I make is: how can we assess the feelings of our constituents and then not express them here anymore? The government does not want to assess, and neither do the Labor party, the feelings of our constituents. The third point I want to make is that we've had no notice on this, and there is control. That's what this is about: control. And, always, beneath control there is fear.
We don't like what happened with formal motions. Our response was not to run away, not to shut down, but to stand up and speak out. Even though it was only one minute, that's what we've done. We spoke. We held people accountable. It doesn't matter whether it's the Greens and we disagreed or agreed with them; we had the guts to speak up. The core issue that's driving this is decades of weak governance and no accountability, and this change continues that. We will continue to tell the truth and calmly speak up and rely on data, and round you lot up.
I'll speak very briefly. I am disappointed that very little notice was given for this and I do point out that we are gagged, in this debate, in a sequence of events where we are also gagged on bills—71 bills in the 37 days that Senator Birmingham has been Leader of the Government in the Senate. All of this is eating away at democracy. I will point out, on the motion that has been moved, one thing is absent that needs to be fixed—that is, the ability to test the Senate on questions of importance—and I think we need to rethink that in the context of moving forward.
Senators, given this goes directly to the operation of the chamber, I'm going to take up the rare option of the chair to contribute to debate under the standing orders. I'll only be a minute.
From the position of having been here for 13 years and also having been your President for the last three-and-a-bit years, this has become an increasingly challenging and, I would put it, unedifying part of Senate business. Complex motions, indeed, matters of conscience are having votes forced without senators being able to explain their positions, let alone debate alternative positions, but senators are not provided the opportunity to explain them.
The right of senators to speak is sacrosanct and that is, in my view, protected, indeed increased, by this motion. However, that right does not extend to forcing other senators to vote without them having the same opportunity, at the very least, to explain their position on motions put before the Senate effectively on less than 24 hours notice. A right to speak does not extend to a right to force others to vote while being denied that very opportunity. Are there any other contributions to the debate? We have 2½ minutes remaining. Senator Lambie.
I have to say I don't agree with you, being someone that's a minor Independent up here and feeling like they're being gagged continuously yet they're the ones stuck. I'm not doing anything wrong and I'm getting punished. I didn't know this country was punishing people for actions that they're not even taking. There are some of us on this crossbench that don't deserve this reprimand. That's what it is, a reprimand on democracy and the people I represent in Tasmania. That's a very sad day.
You want to talk about complex motions. If you think you can get complexity out in two minutes then blow me over. You can't get anything in two minutes. They're right. When we put up motions, we want to see what side you are on. I can tell you right now, if I hadn't been given those motions and pulled you guys up and put you in a corner, that veterans affairs department would be worse and would continue to get worse. There would not be any royal commission. They would never have been able to start to heal, the thousands of veterans out there you are going to see come forward in that royal commission, because they wouldn't have a royal commission.
It seems that every time it gets too hard for you majors, the first thing you want to do is put a piece of goddam gaffer tape on us. You know what? It is chaotic in here. You know why? You are the majority of the Senate, both you major parties. You are the Senate! Take responsibility for your own actions and stop blaming us, because it is enough. We have rights, just like you do—and so do millions of Australians out there. If they've chosen me to be in here, to be heard, that is my right. You limiting my right to be heard in here is limiting their rights. It has gone far enough. Quite frankly, it seems to me that I may as well walk in here with gaffer tape on my mouth saying there's nothing to come here. This is so unfair. You're punishing some of us for something we did not do.