Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Birmingham) to a question without notice asked by Senator Wong today relating to violence.
I rise to take note of the answer given by Senator Birmingham to the question asked by Senator Wong in relation to why government senators voted against a motion calling on political leaders to condemn, without qualification, recent examples of violent extremism directed at health workers and other groups. Unlike too many senators opposite, Labor does not engage in fantasy politics. We're not trying to nod and wink to those who see a deep-state conspiracy behind every public health measure. We're not playing footsy under the table with peddlers of quack remedies and vicious lies. While all Victorians struggled with lockdown—and I did too—despaired at the lack of connection and worried deeply about the impact of what needed to be done, not many felt the need to attack and urinate on the Shrine of Remembrance. And, fortunately, not many Liberal senators felt the need to adopt the unthinking, dangerous formulation that Senator Henderson chose to.
In September this year, in my home city of Melbourne, just metres away from the COVID wards of the Royal Melbourne Hospital, we saw an ugly, thuggish mob, having just stripped the Bunnings shelves bare of high-vis in an attempt to cosplay as construction workers, set itself upon the West Melbourne headquarters of the CFMEU. Union officials were punched and kicked and attacked with makeshift weapons. A dog was brutally kicked, and I thank the RSPCA for identifying and charging the putrid individual responsible. The union secretary had full beer bottles thrown at his head by some in the mob. Make no mistake: a full beer bottle thrown at a person's head is a prospectively lethal weapon. It is a miracle no-one was killed. But this is the context in which Senator Henderson felt it appropriate to tweet:
I condemn these violent protests but I understand why so many workers are turning against the @DanielAndrewsMP Govt.
She said, 'I condemn these violent protests but …'
If violent protesters had thrown full beer bottles at her office and the people working in her office, I would have condemned it as an act of terrorism. I would have demanded that those involved be brought to justice. I would not have indulged in social-worker-type excuse-manufacturing exploring the origin of their rage. Terrorism is terrorism, and I refer to the definition of 'terrorism' in the ASIO Act:
… acts or threats of violence or unlawful harm that are intended or likely to achieve a political objective, whether in Australia or elsewhere, including acts or threats carried on for the purpose of influencing the policy or acts of a government, whether in Australia or elsewhere …
Terrorist acts and related offences are further defined in the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act 1995. Senator Henderson demanded I apologise for calling out her shameful 'I condemn violence but' tweet—not in one tweet in response but in about 20, but that is Senator Henderson for us. Well, I will never apologise to an apologist for those who quite literally urinate on the memory of our fallen soldiers. Protest is a vital part of democracy. When it is respectful, peaceful and passionate it can be a powerful force for moving public debate. But you will never catch me making excuses for violent protesters or rioters—not for the Black Lives Matter protesters who set fire to a police union office in Philadelphia, not for unironically violent protests that sometimes gather to oppose Australian military interventions regardless of mission, not for any unionist in any situation. Every party represented in this chamber that helps make the laws that shape our nation must fundamentally respect the rule of law and the laws themselves. In a democracy there is no excusing those who indulge in violence to advance their cause or to oppose another.
I will finish by saying that Labor and I will never sit back and say nothing in the face of violence and intimidation in our cities and in our communities. We will not, like some of those opposite, walk on the edge of a razor and talk out of both sides of our mouths in a attempt to pry off a few votes, while our nurses and healthcare workers—the literal heroes of this pandemic—cannot walk proud, holding their heads high, through their own streets without fearing that they will be attacked by those so far down the rabbit hole that I fear they are beyond redemption.
The government and everybody on this side very clearly condemn those who seek to incite violence or engage in violence, and to try to suggest otherwise is absolutely unbecoming. I believe that Senator Kitching is in fact better than what she has portrayed herself to be this afternoon. Unfortunately we have now seen her personally attack Senator Reynolds in quite a spiteful way, referring to brain cells and other things—
I withdraw that which is on the Hansard. Senator Kitching has engaged in personal denigration of other female senators in this place—not one of them but two of them—and of course she has also engaged in denigrating the Registered Organisations Commission officials, and the list goes on. What this contribution by Senator Kitching has been all about, unfortunately, is seeking to attack and make a point out of something which does nothing for the cohesion of Australian society.
I am sure that every senator in this place condemns those who would seek to incite violence or actually engage in violence. There is no difference between us over the aisle or across the political divide in this country, and that is why we are such a good, cohesive society. Those who seek to inflame the situation, by referring to some who engage in conduct unbecoming, do the cohesion of our nation no benefit.
This time of taking note of answers is an opportunity—especially for the opposition—to put forward to the Australian people what their vision for Australia is all about, what their plan is, what their policies are. But, instead, how do they use the time? To attack individuals. That is what happens when you've got a hapless, sad, forlorn opposition devoid of policies, devoid of a plan, devoid of a vision. What do you do? You talk about individuals. You seek to denigrate the individuals. You seek to point to some social media comment and blow it into something of great note.
The simple fact is, we on this side are committed and devoted to ensuring that Australia emerges from COVID-19 with a good, sound, strong economic recovery, as it is being overseen by our federal Treasurer. We are concentrating on jobs, job security and job development. We are looking at national resilience to ensure that Australia can withstand the withholding of supplies, be it in fuel, in medical supplies and elsewhere. National resilience is a fundamental issue. You would have thought that those opposite, who lust after the government benches, might have a reason and rationale for that desire. But no, it is just for the sake of power, and they think they can achieve that by tearing down members of the government.
The Australian people see through that. They want more substance. They don't want the personal attacks. So we as a government continue in ensuring our defence capability and our environmental stewardship. All these matters are front and centre of our considerations. Whilst the ALP continues to use question time to personally denigrate the Prime Minister, and anybody else they think they can have a cheap shot at, we get on with the business of government, economic development, security, keeping our country safe from COVID and from external threats and ensuring that we have good environmental stewardship.
They're the things that the people of Australia elect us to do. That is what the Australian people want us to concentrate on, not to engage in the personal attacks and partisan politics that, quite frankly, aren't even appropriate for undergraduate student politics. I invite the ALP to reconsider their approach to public policy debate in this chamber. (Time expired)
There can be no doubting that an essential element of a well-functioning democracy is the right to freely express views on the government of the day and the decisions that the government makes. It will come as no surprise to most that, being a Labor parliamentarian and former union official, I have spent my fair time, alongside many others, robustly articulating views on certain government decision-making that was not in the interests of the workers at all. Work Choices is one example.
In exercising one's right to freedom of political communication in Australia, it is important that the manner in which this right is exercised is in accordance with the values that underpin our democracy: respect, civility and the rule of law. I condemn without reservation those who seek to articulate their views through violence or the threat of it. As we all do in this place, I condemn it without reservation. There is certainly a place in this country for protest. One might even suggest that such activity enhances the quality of our democracy. What there is no place for, however, is harm or threats thereof to participants in that democracy.
I am appalled to hear of members of parliament, whether in this place or state parliaments, and their families and staff receiving threats to their lives. We should all be appalled at such acts. This is not what a well-functioning democracy is about. It is our duty, not just as members of this place but as passionate democrats, to call out this bad behaviour in the strongest possible terms.
That's what we are doing here today. I only hope that, in due course, we will all join together and call on the government to do the same without reservation. Failure to do so is being complicit in undermining our democracy and gives tacit approval to behaviour we all know is wrong. It is our duty as legislators to come together and overcome this division. It is our duty not to tear this place down and not to tear down the fabric of our community. Rather, it is our duty to mend those tears when they do appear.
I am disappointed that there are some in the other place who do not share our commitment to this solemn undertaking, and I hope that, in time, they will. We saw some examples today and yesterday which I hope will remain a one-off. We can and should be very proud of the democracy which we, as Australians, have built here in this country. Indeed, unlike others, we have for the most part been spared the perils of politically motivated violence. Yet such circumstances have not come about through luck; they have come about through deliberate action and through a conscious understanding of the importance of always acting with the purpose of strengthening our democracy, not tearing it down.
These are things that I recall as a young student, not just at school but at university: core, fundamental principles of respect for one another. Yes, we'll have the argy-bargy that occurs in this place, but, when you have actions of members in the Senate and members in the other place that put others' lives in danger and their families in danger, you need to reflect on that and ask why. Is it that you're not able to articulate your argument and put it forward in this place? Why do you have to resort to violence? Why do you have to resort to putting someone's life in danger?
In my home state of Victoria recently, the addresses of many members of state parliament were leaked. One must ask why. What are you trying to prove? Like many people in our country, go and protest and do so peacefully. Do it at the steps of parliament, as many, many groups have done for decades on Spring Street. That's what good democracy is about, and I want to make sure that we maintain it that way. (Time expired)
I rise to respond to Senators Kitching and Ciccone taking note of answers from Senator Birmingham to questions asked by Senator Wong. I might be paraphrasing Senator Wong a little bit, but basically her question was why we as a government did not oppose the motion that was put up. The fact is that there was no motion put. So we didn't not oppose, and we didn't vote against—there was no motion put to the Senate to vote on.
If we turn to some of the comments made by Senator Kitching regarding the issue of violent protests, violence and unacceptable behaviour, we did hear from Senator Birmingham. He said, 'Of course, we oppose and condemn threatening or inflicting violence in any form whatsoever.' So he did address it. We as a government and we as individuals completely oppose threatening, violent or inciteful behaviour by anyone.
Those opposite and those in the corner would have us believe that this is all right-wing extremism. It's not. Certainly, there are extremists out there—right and left wing, and other types—and we must always take action against extremist, politically motivated violence. And we are. I'm pleased to say that this year the government has made a record $1 billion investment in ASIO's most sensitive capabilities. This is to investigate, discover, stamp out, prevent and crack down on this kind of extremism and this kind of violence. So we're definitely doing a lot about the issue.
The other thing that we need to look at is why we're seeing this massive rise in violence and threats—fortunately, at the moment, it's mostly threats—directed towards people in government and people in public office. None of it's excusable, but those on the other side don't care why. They don't care. We do. On this side we do, and we recognise that a lot of these people who aren't the extremists are actually pretty normal people who are behaving in a very, very abnormal way—a way that they would not normally behave in. We need to look at what's causing that.
Some of the people I know in the Northern Territory who are going to these protests are not behaving violently or threatening violence, but they are behaving in a way they would not normally do. The reason they have done that is through absolute frustration and through their livelihoods being taken away from them by the government. That doesn't excuse what they're doing, but these people need help. We need to intervene before they get to the stage where they feel their only course of action is to threaten people. And we are doing that. We're making record investments in mental health. We recognise that a lot of the stresses that people have suffered over COVID have driven them to experience mental health issues, and we're investing in mental health to combat these issues.
Those on the other side don't care about mental health. They're not speaking out about it and they're not committing to investing in it. They don't care about helping people through one of the most difficult and extraordinary times that we'll probably ever live through. We need to acknowledge the impacts of this disease and the responses to the disease. Often, it's the state and territory Labor governments which are reacting extraordinarily in taking away people's lives and livelihoods. We need to acknowledge that and we need to provide help and support for these people who are experiencing mental illness as a result of the COVID responses.
Today we asked the government to support a very simple motion: a motion to call on the Prime Minister and all political leaders to condemn, without reservation and without qualification, the threats of violence at recent protests, including in Melbourne. That sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it's not simple for the Morrison government, because this government wouldn't even allow that important motion to be put. On behalf of all Victorians, I have to say that I am completely disgusted by that decision. It's a disgrace that the government would not allow that motion to be put today—that the government wouldn't take the step that was offered to it to offer the leadership that we need for Victoria and for the country to absolutely, unequivocally and without qualification and reservation condemn the violent protests and threats of violence to politicians, to their families and to our democracy. It is a disgrace!
It is Victorians who are seeing the worst of all of this right now. It is Victorians who are experiencing the violent threats and the disgusting actions of these people, who are threatening our democracy in Victoria. Now it seems, unfortunately, that these threats are being spread around the country. In my home state we have seen attacks on essential workers. We have seen nurses who have been trying to vaccinate people spat on. In Melbourne we have seen protests, as Senator Kitching said, at our shrine, and we have seen the shrine desecrated by violent protesters. We have seen protestors out the front of parliament with gallows, with mocked-up nooses, chanting: 'Hang Dan Andrews! Hang Dan Andrews!'
All we were asking for today was for the government to support a motion—to allow it to be moved—calling on the Prime Minister and all political leaders to condemn, without reservation or qualification, these sorts of threats of violence. And they refused. It is a complete disgrace. In Victoria we are seeing not only members of parliament being threatened but also their families. We are seeing death threats to the Premier in Victoria, and now in other states as well. We are seeing these protests spread. We are seeing members of parliament in other states receiving the same threats and needing protection. There were speakers at a rally this weekend claiming that they would go to any lengths necessary to rid our parliament of these 'traitorous politicians'.
This needs to end. This needs to be put to an end now. What we need is for the Prime Minister to stand up. We need the Prime Minister to lead. We need the Prime Minister to get out of the gutter, where he is scrounging around for votes right now, and actually call this behaviour out, from the highest elected office in the land, and to call it out without reservation—to call it out now, to join us on the Labor side and call out this violent behaviour now. But instead of that leadership, we have a prime minister who is actively sowing distrust for political gain. That is what we have in this country right now. He is playing a dangerous game, with dangerous consequences. He is flirting with the violent protesters in Melbourne, and he is doing that with his doublespeak. On one side, he is saying, 'I condemn the protesters.' Then, out of the other side of his mouth, at the same time, he is saying, 'I understand their frustrations; I understand that they think it's time for governments to get out of people's lives.' We need leadership, not doublespeak, from this Prime Minister.
Question agreed to.