Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021


Environment and Communications Legislation Committee

9:31 am

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

by leave—I ask the Leader of the Government in the Senate to clarify whether the government intends again to seek leave to recommit the vote on general business notice of motion 1270, relating to the inquiry into the ABC and SBS complaints handing process.

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

by leave—I advise the Senate that following matters that were raised in the Senate late in proceedings yesterday I have had discussion with the relevant whips and other parties involved in the division that was questioned in Senate proceedings just prior to adjournment yesterday. As a result of those discussions I do not believe that there is an adequate example of misadventure for the Senate to seek to have the vote recommitted. The government will not be seeking to have that vote recommitted.

More broadly, I would like to acknowledge the very important role that pairing arrangements play in this place. One of the things that distinguishes this chamber from the other place is, indeed, the upholding of conventions, particularly those around pairing in this place, to ensure that the will of the chamber is adequately reflected at all times, noting that for many very legitimate reasons senators will from time to time be unable to participate in the proceedings. That has not always been the case in the other place, and I believe it has been to its detriment in terms of the operation of that chamber compared with this chamber. I take very seriously the importance of such conventions and practices because I know they enable all senators of all political persuasions to exercise their duties in this place as well as their duties outside of this place, both professional and personal obligations, from time to time.

Mr President, I want to assure you and through you the Senate that when matters were raised yesterday I did take steps to look into them, and that the government at all times will seek to be ensuring that all government senators, where pairs are requested, are recorded appropriately and reflect entirely the will of those senators. I am aware of correspondence that the opposition has sent to two government senators in particular, I believe. I understand the opposition's request to have express pairing instructions from those senators. I believe those senators are aware of that matter, and the government whip will work with the opposition whip and those senators to ensure that practices are provided and advice is provided in a manner that gives the opposition and the chamber sufficient confidence that the will of the individual senators is being accurately reflected at all times.

9:34 am

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

by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

I thank the Leader of the Government in the Senate for his recognition of the circumstances of misadventure that have enabled recommittal, which really, I think, wasn't demonstrated yesterday, and also for his acknowledgement of the importance of pairing arrangements, which at their heart, we need to remember, are about ensuring the will of the Senate is reflected. They're not about funny games to manage your internals; they're ultimately about whether or not the democratic will of the Senate is reflected in the outcome of a vote.

I do want to raise the issue which he averted, which is the issue of two senators on the other side—that is, Senators Antic and Rennick—who have made public comments that they will withhold their vote. I will refer to Senator Rennick, who said:

This evening I sent the following letter to the Prime Minister advising him that I will withhold my vote from the Coalition until a number of issues are dealt with.

He goes to the lifting of vaccine mandates—obviously, it hasn't occurred—compensation for people who've been injured, and a whole range of issues about testing which were a bit confusing. Anyway, that's a matter for him. My point is that the convention in this place that the whip of a major party, or actually of any party, can advise of who is being paired is predicated on the assumption that the whip speaks for the senators. That's the basis on which we grant pairs, and the basis on which pairs are granted in order to reflect the will of the Senate.

The Senate yesterday, really, was in a position where a senator who said his vote was being withheld until the Prime Minister dealt with a few things was actually paired as a coalition vote. He then rocked up to the chamber and said he wanted it recommitted because actually he wanted to vote for it. So it was 'My vote's been withheld until the PM does what I want on vaccine mandates. Actually, my vote will be counted, but I'll be paired. Actually, no, please recommit it, because I think I want to be there.' I could talk about the shambles that that was last night, but we were all here. I think we all saw. The more important point is that, in circumstances where two senators have made repeated public assertions that they will not be voting with the government, I make it clear to the government, as has been outlined in Senator Urquhart's letter, which was copied to Senator Smith, we do not feel we can simply accept the whips' advice that they have their votes for the purpose of granting pairs. It is an unprecedented situation. To keep faith with the pairing arrangements, Senator Urquhart has written to Senators Rennick and Antic—and may I say I think it's a very responsible thing that she has done—and said:

To ensure the will of the Senate is reflected in remaining votes in this Parliamentary session and in light of your public statements, I ask that you communicate, in writing, your intention to support, oppose or abstain on each vote to all whips. This is consistent—

this requirement—

with the requirement for independent senators when they are absent from the chamber and minor parties when they are not representing in the chamber.

So it's the same standard we expect of Senators Hanson and Roberts when they're not here, Senator Lambie when she's not here, Senator Griff when he's not here and Senator Patrick when he's not here. We are not asking for this on a whim. We're asking for this because their senators, these two senators, have said, 'We're not voting with them,' but they still are—or we're told they still are, sometimes.

I seek leave to table the documents from which I've just quoted, which are the letters from Senator Urquhart to Senators Rennick and Antic.

Leave granted.

I thank the Senate. And I would ask the government, after this discussion has concluded, to make a commitment in the chamber that, in order to ensure that the pairing arrangement remains both intact and beyond reproach, the arrangements sought in these letters are complied with.

9:39 am

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise as the Australian Greens Whip to make a contribution to this debate. Let's be really clear about what happened last night first. Senator Rennick came into this chamber and placed on the record that there had been, to use his words, 'confusion over the pairing arrangements' and asked for a vote to be recommitted. Now the government have come in this morning and informed the Senate that they would not be proceeding with any attempt to have that vote recommitted.

This raises significant questions about what Senator Rennick said last night, whether that was in fact accurate, whether there was in fact confusion over the pairing arrangements or whether that was a cover for something else. I want to make something really clear. In the view of the Australian Greens, recommittals are not mulligans. They're not like a second shot you get in golf because you shanked the first one out of play. They are for genuine misadventure where a senator genuinely couldn't make it to the chamber before the bells stopped ringing or when there was genuine confusion over the pairing arrangements. That's what recommittals are for. They're not just some free kick to have a vote recommitted to buy time to put pressure on senators to change their voting position. That's not what recommittals are for.

As we said last night, the Greens have been very happy to consider a recommittal if in fact there was genuine confusion over the pairing arrangements, but that case was not made last night by the government. Simply asserting that there has been confusion over the pairing arrangements is not enough of an argument for the Senate to recommit a vote. For clarity, we would have needed to know, or sought to know, information, including exactly what the confusion was. What was the chain of events that led to this asserted confusion over pairing arrangements? Was Senator Rennick actually paired? If so, how was he paired and how did he communicate his position on that vote and to whom did he communicate his position on that vote? These are questions that not only all senators but the Australian people deserve answers to and not just with regard to the vote that the government last night sought to have recommitted but in fact on all votes that are taken in this Senate.

This episode, along with other recent events, has exposed a genuine weakness in the pairing system in this place, including a lack of transparency and a lack of rigour. This transparency and this rigour are needed not just so that we can all have confidence in the pairing arrangements. This is where we make the laws of the country. Legislation in the current Senate has often passed or failed to pass by a single vote. It goes on to either become law or not to become law as a result. Senator Hanson-Young last night raised the potential for a High Court challenge to laws on the basis they were not made in accordance with the Constitution. These are incredibly serious matters. There is a very strong argument for the pairing arrangements to be considered in detail and at length by a committee—for example, the Procedure Committee.

I thank Senator Wong for placing before the Senate the letters that Senator Urquhart has written, I understand, to Senators Rennick and Antic. The questions that were contained in those letters that Senator Wong has tabled are extremely important questions for those senators to answer. However, it's not just Senators Rennick and Antic that the Australian Greens have concerns about. We also have concerns about the voting positions of all members when they are engaged in the pairing system, as well as how they communicate that position and to whom. We've seen, for example, One Nation vote differently in the past on particular matters that come before the Senate. Our view is that the episodes of last night and this morning have raised significant questions about the robustness and transparency of the pairing system, and our very strong view remains that these matters need to be considered very carefully and at length because they are incredibly serious issues. It is the view of the Greens that the Procedure Committee would be the correct place for that to occur. There may be some further discussion about that this morning. If not, I simply inform the Senate that the Greens will take under consideration a referral to the Privileges Committee on these issues.

9:46 am

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

STON (—) (): There have been a number of assertions and comments made in this place in relation to the pairing arrangements, particularly in relation to the pairing arrangements of two government senators. I want to absolutely assure the Senate that the pairing arrangements that have been reflected in the votes of the last few days are absolutely consistent with the wishes of those senators, and, in the interests of transparency, I would like to read into the record the positions of those two senators.

Senator Alex Antic has written to the whips, and he has sought to be paired with the government on all non-legislative votes conducted in the Senate chamber. I also refer to correspondence that's been received by Senator Gerard Rennick. He has also sought to be paired with the government on all non-legislative votes. To be very clear: this is absolutely consistent with the position that has been taken; it is reflected in the whips' arrangements of the previous two days and will be reflected in the whips' positions in coming days. I just want to be very clear that we are absolutely consistent with the position of those two senators and have been so during the time that they have been seeking those pairs.

9:47 am

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

What a shambles this chamber has become under the Morrison-Joyce government's management. For the past two weeks we have been hearing threat after threat from Senator Rennick and Senator Antic to withhold their vote from the government unless they got their way. Let's be clear: this is not in the tradition of the Liberal and National parties saying, 'We can cross the floor on an issue if we want to.' This was an absolute threat to withhold the vote on everything in order to hold the government to ransom. This goes against the individual-conscience approach that the Liberals and Nationals like to crow about. It was an absolute strike. They went on strike. They threatened it and they threatened it, which is how we got to the shambles of last night. There we had the empty threats laid bare, after Senator Rennick told the media he was not for turning. He told his constituents in Queensland that he was absolute. He told this chamber and he told everyone on Facebook—and we know about Senator Rennick's Facebook, don't we?

But that's not the subject of the speech. The subject of the speech is that Senator Rennick has been telling everyone up hill and down dale that he is not for turning; he will not back the government unless the government overturns vaccine mandates—unless Scott Morrison personally stands up and opposes vaccine mandates. What did we see last night? We saw a somewhat ashen faced, embarrassed, dishevelled and dissembling Senator Rennick stand up, unable to even articulate why he hadn't voted, what his position was and whether he was trying to recommit a vote or not. It was an absolute omnishambles from a government that is splintering in the Senate before our very eyes.

We saw it on Monday, with five government senators crossing the floor to vote against their own government. We saw it again last night, with Senator Rennick going to water, crumbling before our very eyes, showing he does not have the courage of his convictions, just seeking to recommit a vote. Then we have the same thing with Senator Antic. Senator Antic has been telling everyone: 'I'm not with the government; I'm not with the government. I'm standing firm on vaccine mandates. I'm not for turning. I'm not going to back down—until I do.' There he was, Chamberlain with his paper—Chamberlain with his email, really—capitulating to the Liberal and National whips. There they were, signing away their individual right to cross the floor by committing themselves to pair with the government on all non-legislative votes. Give me a break! Either these senators have the courage of their convictions or these senators do not.

What are we seeing here today? Now it's getting a little more conditional. With all the conditions they're putting on their supposed protest against their own government, now Senator Rennick and Senator Antic are going to vote with the government on all nine legislative matters. Come on! Meanwhile, we have a government that is unwilling to bring on a vote on a legislative matter. How many speakers from the government side did this chamber hear speak yesterday on pieces of national security legislation that clearly had the support of the chamber? It could have been brought on, dealt with and moved on—critical infrastructure; high-risk terrorist offenders. Come on! They talked these out because they didn't know where their own senators would line up when it came to the legislative vote.

I'll make a prediction to the chamber. We're going to have another day of talking out legislation that is not controversial, legislation that could pass this chamber today. Why? Because this government doesn't have the courage to bring on a national anticorruption commission bill. They promised it over a thousand days ago; they're not bringing it on. This government does not have the courage to bring on its religious discrimination bill. The Prime Minister is going to make a big song and dance in the other place when personally introducing it, but he can't even guarantee that his own team backs it. This is a government that is dissembling before our very eyes. This goes to the debate we are having here today.

I thank those senators who have participated and those who may well participate. The fact that we have now been provided with the two emails from Senators Antic and Rennick saying they're backing down, dissembling and calling off their general strike against their own government just goes to show why we need clarity about pairing arrangements. How can this chamber vote in good conscience without knowing the pairing arrangements? How can the crossbench participate in these votes without knowing the pairing arrangements? How can the public understand the voting intentions and how decisions were arrived at in this chamber if the voting arrangements are not transparent? Get your act together, over there.

Last night was embarrassing. There was Senator Bragg and his misadventure in striking off on his own to have an inquiry into the ABC's complaint-handling process, leading to Ita Buttrose, the chair of the ABC, asking this chamber to suspend or cancel that inquiry until the ABC had a chance to do its own work. That was an extraordinary move—almost unprecedented, I imagine.

The chair of the ABC asked this chamber to take a decision. We took it yesterday. I acknowledge that Senator Hanson-Young and Senator Gallagher moved a motion. It was supported by this chamber. Then what did we have? The government, which are always intent on attacking the ABC, decided last night that they would have one more go at attacking the ABC, that they would have one more go at disregarding their own hand-picked chair of the ABC, Ita Buttrose, that they would ignore her, that they would try to recommit a vote, that they would try to bring it on, that they would try to allow Senator Bragg to continue on his lark of attacking the ABC. Let's be clear: you cannot trust the Morrison government with the ABC. You cannot trust the cuts to the ABC and the political attacks on the ABC, the most trusted source of information in this country. And what do the most distrustful government we have seen and a prime minister who can't tell the truth do? They go about last night in a shambles of an event, trying to recommit this vote and reignite their attack on the ABC. You cannot trust them with the ABC. You cannot trust them with pairing arrangements. You cannot trust Senator Antic or Senator Rennick when they say they are going on strike. You cannot even trust the government to get their whipping arrangements right.

Let's have some transparency, let's have some visibility and let's rebuild some trust in the system, here in the chamber. Mr President, I implore you, as the new President, to ensure that we have that transparency. I implore the chamber to ensure that we have the transparency. Nothing less than our democracy depends on it.

9:56 am

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to take note of the statement made by the Leader of the Government in the Senate today, which is in stark contrast to the shambles that we saw here last night, only minutes before this chamber was meant to adjourn. We saw the government, in all chaos, having to march Senator Rennick into the chamber, have him grovel to the chamber, asking for a recommittal of a vote that he says he is still confused about. It was like watching a hostage video! This is what is going on on that side of the chamber—a government in chaos, a Prime Minister untrustworthy, trying to find everyone else to blame.

The renegades can't even get their show in order. They don't know who they're after. But the Prime Minister has, and his government continues to have, the ABC in their sights. Well, this chamber didn't accept that yesterday. The Senate did what we should do, and that is to allow an independent process to continue and to not do the bidding of politicians who don't like what journalists report. That's what was going on here. This chamber last night was about to be asked to set up a witch-hunt into the ABC because the Prime Minister doesn't like what the broadcaster reports. On the eve of an election, Mr Scott Morrison and his untrustworthy ways did not want our public broadcaster to report on what his government is up to. If he can't win an election in his own right, well, bad luck!

This government has had the ABC in their sights from day dot. From the moment that he was elected as Prime Minister, Mr Abbott was found out to be misleading, untrustworthy, after having said on the eve of the election in 2013, 'We won't cut the ABC's budget,' only to then cut and slash and burn—over $700 million cut from our public broadcaster, the service that tells Australians what's going on in the midst of the bushfires, the news service that is most trusted when it comes to information about COVID-19. The ABC, our public broadcaster, is the most trusted public institution in this country. It's not the ABC that Australians have a problem with. It's the Prime Minister, Mr Scott Morrison, who can't be trusted and has a problem with the truth.

So I welcome the about-face of the Leader of the Government in the Senate today, as he came in and confirmed that they won't recommit this vote, because, in doing so, they've exposed just what a shambles the government is in and what a plaything they consider pairing in this place to be. Now we hear that there is going to be a commitment to at least recording paired votes in the Hansard. Heavens above! The Australian people might be able to know how senators in this place have exercised their influence, power and vote! It beggars belief that we're in 2021 and it's a breakthrough to have that element of transparency, because it's been forced on them as they've been exposed for trying to manipulate and be sneaky. It's right up there with the characteristics of the Prime Minister, isn't it?

We do need to sort out the pairing arrangements in this place, and we do need to make sure there is better transparency and accountability. I look forward to seeing those reforms come forward. But, make no mistake, the government wanted this done last night, to continue to attack the ABC, to continue their witch-hunt, because the only thing going for the Prime Minister right now is more cover-up of his untruths and his inability to lie straight in bed.

10:01 am

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

I just want to make it crystal clear to the government and the chamber that, on the basis of the letters the chamber has now received from Senators Antic and Rennick, which indicate an ongoing pair on non-legislative matters, the opposition will not grant pairs for those two senators for legislation in the absence of written instructions.

10:02 am

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

Just in response, the reason that Senator Ruston read those pair instructions into the record in the Senate following their provision to the Chief Government Whip as well as to the Opposition Whip was to ensure that that was transparent and clear, in the interests of all senators and the interests of the two senators involved.

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I just want to put on the record that, in my view, this is not just about Senator Rennick and Senator Antic. There is just a general masking of senators' intentions. There are different ways in which we can influence the outcome of a vote. One of them is to sit in the chamber on the yes or no side. Another way is to absent yourself. Another way is to pair yourself. All of that influences the outcome of a vote, and it is the pairing that masks the absentee; it is the pairing that masks other voters. For example—this is not a criticism—Senator Hanson and Senator Roberts are not in the chamber, so it's impossible to see how they are exercising their vote through a pair unless you go and ask the whips. Over the last couple of days, I've had journalists call me and ask, 'How did Senator Hanson vote?' And I say, 'Actually I don't even know.' We just have to be transparent. We have to find a mechanism to enable that to happen. I do understand that the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and the Leader of the Government in the Senate are now engaging in a bit of background discussion to work out how that should happen, and Senator Waters and I will also seek to have whatever is agreed informally formalised through the Procedure Committee.

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I now put the question on the motion that the Senate take note of the response from Senator Birmingham.

Question agreed to.