Friday, 16 June 2023
I seek leave to move a motion relating to the routine of business today, as circulated.
Leave not granted.
Pursuant to contingent notice standing in my name, I move:
That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent Senator Birmingham moving a motion to provide for the consideration of a matter, namely a motion to provide that a motion relating to routine of business today be moved immediately and be determined without amendment or debate.
President and colleagues, the motion I seek to move today is a simple one. It would seek to give precedence during the bulk of government business time today, starting immediately, to the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice) 2023. The effect of this motion would be to ensure we start debate on the Constitution alteration bill earlier today than would otherwise be the case. It would not change the open-ended nature of today's debate. It would not in any way compromise the commitment that we have given as the Liberal Party and that exists, I think, across this chamber to ensure this bill passes through the chamber so that Australians ultimately get to have their say in relation to this proposal.
What this motion would do is help to ensure that, when we are debating something as serious, important and significant as amending Australia's Constitution, we minimise the extent to which detailed consideration of that debate drags on into the night and potentially the early hours of the next morning. It would ensure that the debate started now, as soon as this motion passed, and that we actually had more of that debate occurring through the normal, considered time of the Senate during daylight hours. It would also ensure that we would not trade off the timely and proper consideration of the Constitution alteration bill with consideration of other matters—particularly the budget and appropriations bills—currently subject to guillotine. Those bills can still be considered next week through the normal course of events, as would be appropriate.
I would ask particularly the Greens and the crossbench, but also the government, to consider what is the best-practice approach for how we approach and consider amending Australia's Constitution, and what is the best-practice way for this Senate chamber to give the most thoughtful and serious consideration to budget and appropriations bills and Constitution alteration bills. What we can best do for that is ensure that we get on with the Constitution alteration bill.
It should not be a bill that is essentially only considered by night in the Senate. We have facilitated during the course of the week an agreement across the Senate chamber for additional hours for speeches in the second reading debate to continue, and there are still a good number of those to be concluded. But then we will move into the committee stage, and in that committee stage there will rightly be questions asked about the effect of the Constitution alteration bill. There are also, as I understand it, from some parts of the crossbench and potentially some other senators amendments that will be proposed to the Constitution alteration bill. Far better that we get to those matters several hours earlier than that we face the situation of them being dealt with later and later at night or possibly even into tomorrow. That's the effect of this. Then, next week, with a full Senate sitting week and the confidence that the Constitution alteration bill, in one form or another, will have passed this chamber, we can have considered debate in relation to the appropriation bills, budget matters, and the other bills that are before us and currently subject to the government guillotine.
I implore the government to think about this as a sensible way forward. It's not seeking to be obstructionist. It is seeking to ensure, consistent with many of the debates we've had in this chamber about needing to operate in a family-friendly way and about needing to operate the chamber in ways that bring out the best of possible debates, that on something such as the Constitution alteration bill that that is what we do. It is disappointing that the approach of legislation by exhaustion has been adopted for this by having the open-ended debate tonight, but we respect the government's desire to have this bill concluded during this week of settings and we are not seeking to vary that. We are simply seeking to ensure that we have the type of considered debate that amending Australia's Constitution best warrants. I say to the Greens and the rest of the crossbench: if you want to ensure that we have thoughtful debate and can move through it in the most orderly way possible, I urge you to support this motion.
The government will not be supporting the suspension of standing orders or, indeed, the amendment that's been circulated. I would say that the hours motion that set up the week passed the Senate without any senator opposing it. There was no opposition to that when it was set up. There has been no request to the government to change the order of business for today. It is a bit ironic that the first thing we do in order to get to a bill is delay getting to the bill through a suspension motion.
The program as it is set up, as agreed by this entire Senate on, I think, Tuesday, has on it the Creative Australia Bill 2023 and the Treasury Laws Amendment (2023 Measures No. 2) Bill 2023, both of which have a very small number of speakers listed. We could proceed very quickly to the Constitution alteration bill this morning if the speakers' lists are adhered to. So on the argument that Senator Birmingham put about the need to have the debate on this important piece of legislation—and it is important, which is why we have extended hours so senators are able to make their contributions, and they have been doing so over the last two nights—it could be commenced within the next half an hour, if people chose that. So I think the argument that Senator Birmingham out about the importance of having this debate done in the normal course of the day can be delivered without the delay that he seeks to impose through trying to reorder the program and delay actually getting to the government's program today.
I think we saw this the last time we sat on a Friday. There was another attempt to reorder the program. It might be something that we just have to live with on Fridays. But the program as it's set out was agreed by everybody. Nobody opposed it. The Creative Australia Bill 2023 and the Treasury Laws Amendment (2023 Measures No. 2) Bill 2023 are non-controversial bills. We should get to them as soon as we can. Then people should be able to move straight into the Constitution alteration bill debate. The importance of this bill is reflected in the fact that the Senate will sit until this bill is complete, because we don't want to cut off debate on this bill; we want everyone to have an opportunity to have a say. We understand that people want a committee stage, and that's why the hours arrangement was set up.
Then we have the appropriation bill, which, as I understand, more than 10 coalition speakers or perhaps more have already spoken on. So, the program as set out is a reasonable pathway to get through a Friday sitting day. It meets all the issues that have been raised by Senator Birmingham in terms of having time to talk and the importance of the Constitution alteration bill. It allows for all of that—if we were able to just get on with it, which is what I would urge the Senate to do.
And I would say to those on the crossbench: thank you for your support for the hours motion that we moved on Tuesday. I would urge you to stick with that, because it is trying to balance up what we took as the will of the chamber. This government isn't about imposing just our view. We reached out to find out what people wanted—how they wanted to handle bills. We took that feedback, and that is what is reflected in the program today, to deal with a number of bills so that next week, when we will still have about 20 other bills to deal with, it can be dealt with in an orderly way, and we could manage to pass a few of those less-controversial bills this week, along with allowing every person in this chamber to have as much time as they would like on the Constitution alteration bill. I see no reason why we can't be commencing that bill by 10 o'clock today, if the Senate chooses to do so.
Well, let's get some facts on the record here. First of all, if you recall when the motion was put forward to guillotine debate on a number of bills on the second day of a sitting fortnight, I rose and made a contribution. My contribution was very clear: that the opposition didn't support this motion; however, we recognise that there were enough numbers in this chamber for it to go through and therefore, in the interest of not wasting time, we let it go through.
But let me make it very, very, very clear: I have been, and the opposition has been, clearly misrepresented in here. The Manager of Government Business in this place just rose and said that there was no objection to that motion. I quite clearly put on the record the objection of the opposition on that particular motion. I made it very clear that we understood that the will of the chamber was going to be for it to go through and we wouldn't vote against it.
But I would say to the minister—who is quite clearly interjecting—that you can't come in here and try to rewrite history just for your own benefit. We were very clear about the fact that we thought it was absolutely incompetent of those opposite that they thought that it was okay to come into this chamber on the second day of a sitting fortnight and start to guillotine bills. It just goes to show the contempt with which those opposite hold this chamber.
But I would also put on the record the fact that in posing our views to the chamber I have reached out to the manager this week on a number of occasions and said I was quite happy to sit down and work with the government to make sure we facilitated the passage of non-controversial legislation to make sure the government's agenda was easily put through where we were able to agree. I have not had one meeting with the manager.
You also make the comment that in the next half an hour we could get back onto the constitutional bill. But you fail to realise that we can't get back to the appropriations bill because you have basically gagged any further debate about some budget bills. I mean, what is the contempt that this government holds this chamber in, that it actually gags debate on something as important as that?
But probably more than anything, the contempt with which they are using this bill, a bill to change the Constitution—probably the most important bill that any of us will ever have the opportunity to debate in this place; it changes the founding document of our country—as some sort of political football to play games with, to block bills, gag bills and guillotine bills is contemptuous. It is just absolutely contemptuous of those opposite that they would seek to do that on a bill of such extraordinary importance.
So what do they do? They come in here today and decide that the most important thing that we're going to debate on this day, when we're about to make a really extraordinary decision to change our Constitution, is the Creative Australia Bill 2023 and the Creative Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2023. They think these are somehow more important for us to be debating on this day. In the process of doing this, you're going to kick debate on this extraordinarily important bill into the wee hours of tomorrow morning.
You have so many questions to answer. I'm not holding out a great deal of hope tonight that we'll get any answers to the questions that we are going to be asking you about this really important bill. For the last 12 months since you've been in government you haven't been able to answer anything at all about this bill. So we're not holding out any hope.
I think the most egregious thing that we have seen happen here is that, despite the fact that you went to the election with the catchcry of transparency, scrutiny, accountability—that's what you told the Australian public, that this was going to be a better place for that—you seek to come in here and guillotine bills. We've got all of next week. Obviously, as we have said on a number of occasions, we're happy to sit down with the government and talk to you about how we'll facilitate your right to run the agenda of this place. We're happy to do that. But you come in here and start to guillotine important bills—Treasury bills, appropriations bills—in the first week of a sitting fortnight.
I say to those opposite: have a little think about how this reflects on you. You've had offers of support. You've had offers to make things happen, but, instead, you come in here, you use your numbers to impose your view on the chamber by getting those at the other end to support you. You are running your agenda, so don't come in here and say that you are facilitating the will of the chamber when you won't even speak to the alternative government. (Time expired)
I'm so pleased to receive such a warm welcome from my colleagues to make a contribution to this very important debate! I didn't realise I had such a fan club in the government, but I guess that's a vote of confidence in me.
I will turn to the issues at hand, as I talk to this very important issue—
Oh, President. Honestly! The suspension we're debating that was moved by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate is a very important one. I was sitting here listening to this debate—and I've not yet been able to give my contribution on the constitution alteration bill that's currently before the chamber—
I will just take those interjections, because the point I want to make here is that the government are saying it's either/or—you can either debate your constitutional amendment bill, the most important bill, chances are, that we will pass in a generation, to give Australians their say, or you can do the job that you'd normally be doing, which is debating and considering tax and appropriations bills. They're saying, 'If you shut up and sit down, we could get on with it.' But, hang on, we're got other legislation before we get to that bill, which is so critically important, which the government put on the agenda and which the Manager of Opposition Business said we took issue with. Sure, there wasn't a division the other day, but the views were very clearly put on record. To suggest, somehow, that we're going to sign up and let it sail on through, and zip our mouths shut and let you lot impose your agenda on this place is wrong, so we will take issue with that.
My Tasmanian colleagues, who are amazing orators at the best of times, want to interject on me about the importance of this debate and the need for us to actually allocate appropriate time to legislation that is on the red, TLAB bill, which, of course, is incredibly important, but it's an either/or proposition here: 'You get two minutes on this if you like and then we can move on.' We could be done by 10, we were told, which is in 11 minutes time.
No, that's not okay. We aren't just going to shut up and allow you to do what you are doing, and that is run a steamroller through this place just so we can get on with the rest of it. We have another sitting week next week too, so we could actually factor that into the timing of debate in this place. I don't think that's an unreasonable request. We didn't have to have a suspension on this. We could have probably dealt with the motion if leave had been granted. We wouldn't be having this debate now. Perhaps take some responsibility for your actions. We're trying to make the case to the Australian Greens and the crossbench so that your colleagues understand what the leadership group of the government in the Senate are doing as well. I don't think some opposite understand exactly what's going on. It is a truncation of debate, and that is a bad thing to happen in this chamber. I don't think—
No doubt we will have an extensive committee stage on the constitutional alteration bill, because there are many important questions that the people of Australia have asked the opposition to put on the record because they can't get the answers to these questions. Of course, it's an open-ended debate, but wouldn't it be better to be doing it while the sun is still up rather than late into the night? If we structured the agenda appropriately—and the Australian Greens could be a party to this as well—we'd be able to facilitate that, rather than sign up to the agenda here that the Australian government put in place. They signed up the Australian Greens in truncating that debate.
I don't accept that it's an either/or proposition. If you shut up on these bills, don't interrogate them, don't have a look at what's being proposed here and just let them sail through with no debate, no questions, no scrutiny and no interrogation of the facts, you can get on with the other one. This is exactly what they've done. They've structured it this way so that we do shut down debate, there is no interrogation of the facts and there's no scrutiny of the government. It's an either/or proposition; you can't have both.
I take the interjection from Senator Hughes. Prime Minister Albanese said he would usher in this new era of transparency, but he's doing it under the cover of darkness for certain bills and making us shut up on other ones. It is not a good approach to government, and it treats this chamber with contempt. So I echo the calls from the Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and implore the crossbench to support our motion that's seeking to suspend the standing orders.
That's an excellent point, Senator Hanson-Young. She understands where I'm coming from—sometimes. (Time expired)
I rise to speak to this suspension motion. This week we have wanted to get the Voice referendum legislation through this place. We wanted to do it in a way so that senators across the chamber could have their say. Unfortunately, the Albanese government has dismissed the usual practice for constitutional change in this country—holding a people's convention so that both sides of what is often complex arguments can have their views respectfully aired and then having individual Australian citizens go to the ballot box and quietly make their own determination about whether or not they think that's a good thing to do to our Constitution. Changing our founding document is an incredibly serious thing to do. Truncating the debate outside of this place is the decision of the government. They said they'd be transparent, but on this question they've been anything but. The lack of detail is now beginning to show as the Australian public's mind turns to the referendum question. They are concerned about the lack of detail.
Thank you for the guidance, Madam President, but I'm trying to make the case that, given the government's refusal to give the Australian people detail or a platform on which to interrogate and prosecute this potential change to our Constitution, the only place for that to happen in a respectful and transparent way is the Australian parliament—its committees and both chambers. We've seen another attempt by the Albanese government to truncate debate and to hide from the Australian people genuine concerns from people who just happen to not agree with them. The last time I checked it's not Cuba, North Korea or Beijing; it's the Australian democracy where different ideas should be allowed to be expressed in a respectful way and listened to. Yet when it comes to the inquiry into the bill before the Senate today—fast and furious as it was when the question was so serious—here we are, sitting on a Friday. People have cancelled their plans, ready to have the conversation that had to be had, to debate not just the Voice but also the other bills that the government—who have a right to set the agenda; they won the election; they manage the chamber—have put on the red.
So I ask the chamber: when did we become the chamber of shutting down debate on the most serious questions we are asked? These are not bills that have no consequence. This is changing our founding document.
Government senators interjecting—
And those opposite laugh merrily about genuine concerns of senators on this side of the chamber, and hopefully on the crossbench, who want to allow any senator in this place the time to make their contribution to the second reading debate and to actually ask the minister responsible as many questions as they need to about the detail. They also need to give the Senate the chance to contribute, to apply the transparency and scrutiny that this chamber is renowned for, not just in our country but globally.
The appropriation bills that are now going to be subject to a guillotine, it would seem, are bills that people actually wanted to have a say on, about how this government is approaching their fiscal management of the economy as Australians are hurting. They wanted to have their say on the TLAB as well. We have come in here, when we've put everything aside to get the job done—because that is the question that was put to us earlier in the week, about staying here as senators, as the Senate, to complete the referendum legislation—and we are now seeing the government again seeking to guillotine, on a Friday. I'm happy to stay the weekend, and I'm sure other senators are, to make sure we can fulfil our very important job in this democracy.
Senator Watt! But if you are listening, please listen in silence. Senator O'Sullivan.
President, thank you very much for raising that issue in the chamber here today, because the irony is that this lot over here are complaining about us having a debate on the suspension and, well, we wouldn't be debating a suspension if leave hadn't been denied. We could have taken this straight to a vote. But, instead, we are here debating this point. And I want to concur with the comments that have been made in this debate by my colleagues already, starting with our leader over here, and all my other excellent colleagues who raised important points, because this is, of course, a critical issue.
Being able to get to the debate on the Constitution amendment is vital, as is being able to do it at a sensible hour of the day, when we're all of clear mind to be able to put questions and hopefully get back answers. But we know we don't actually get those questions answered in this place when we put them; that often is the case. So, we want to be able to get to it.
I wanted to raise a particular issue in relation to the guillotining, because I got only about 30 seconds into my speech on the appropriation bill before the time of day shifted to a hard marker and I was in continuation. So, I'm not going to be able to continue with the speech I wanted to deliver in relation to critiquing the budget, because of the arrangement that you've put here today. And I think it's very disappointing that we're not provided with the opportunity to properly debate these important things—firstly, in the daylight hours, the Constitution alteration bill, and secondly, a proper debate about the appropriation bill. Many colleagues of mine were to follow me, were after me on the speakers' list. They wanted to make a contribution in relation to the appropriation bill but are not going to be afforded the opportunity today.
There are some very serious issues that are not being addressed by this government in relation to the economy and in relation to the budget. The budget expenditure is not aimed at actually reducing inflation, and there are some very serious issues. I'm very disappointed that we don't have the opportunity to have a discussion about productivity, for example, and the lack of productivity in our economy. We heard the Reserve Bank governor speak last week about that as one of the key reasons behind the pressure that's on inflation.
Thank you. I appreciate your guidance, President. The point that I'm making is that the suspension debate is about the guillotining of important topics that are listed here on the red today and of important legislation that needs to be debated. Truncating it and shifting things around in the way that it has been done—and with the time markers that are there throughout the day—is preventing us from having a fulsome debate about these critical issues. I look forward to getting to the Constitution alteration bill later today—
at whatever time that might be. It might be at 2 am, Senator Scarr—that's right. Hopefully it's not that far into the evening, because there are some very serious issues that need to be examined and questions that really should be answered. Maybe I won't hold my breath, but I am hopeful that we will be able to hear some answers, because Australians really do have big questions about the operation of the Voice and the implications for our democracy. Those are questions that are very much on people's minds. We have to respect the Australian people and their ability to think things through. Here in this place that's what we need to be able to do: to ask questions and have them answered in a way that's satisfactory—not just deflecting but actually dealing with the issues that are before us. I would encourage the Senate to consider supporting this suspension motion, because it will enable us to expeditiously get through the agenda today—not taking anything off the agenda—in a way that's sufficient to enable us to properly debate it and consider all the issues that are before us in a timely and efficient way.