Senate debates

Tuesday, 28 November 2023

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Answers to Questions

3:01 pm

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of all questions without notice asked by coalition senators today.

What we saw in question time today, and have seen from the conduct of the government over many months, is that they do kind of miss Joel Fitzgibbon. They really do miss Joel. I miss Joel. I think lots of us miss Joel. This government in particular really misses people like Joel Fitzgibbon, who actually stood up for the rights of workers, stood up for their jobs, and stood up for their industries that helped them pay for their homes and put their kids through school. But, instead, we now have a mob that, notionally, is meant to protect workers' rights but is instead funding the very radical activists that want to put those workers that they're meant to represent out of a job.

It was Joel Fitzgibbon himself over the past week who, at a conference, called out his former Labor colleagues for funding the Environmental Defenders Office, a group of radical climate activists—and I will get to that in a second. Mr Fitzgibbon, a respected statesman of the Labor Party, called his colleagues out, saying they were 'handing taxpayers' money to activists and financing job-destroying legal challenges'. That's exactly what they're doing.

In fact, in recent months the EDO has been using the money that it receives from this government and other governments to defend an individual, Mr Emil Davey, in the courts in Western Australia. Mr Davey has been exposed on CCTV footage scoping out the home of the Woodside CEO just before the infamous protest that occurred there a few months ago. So we have this complete and utter grub here who is scoping out other people's homes. He publicly did this. The government did condemn this conduct, or they did publicly say they didn't accept that protests should occur at people's homes.

He's now in court, being charged with helping organise this terrible trespassing of someone's home, and it's the Labor government that is helping the organisation defend him. That's the Labor government, the people that say they represent workers and say they represent the resources industry that provides good, paying jobs for millions of Australians. They are funding these people who want to put them out of a job. Karl Marx said that it would be the bourgeoisie that dug their own graves. Well, it is the Labor Party here who are funding their own gravediggers by not taking the warnings of Marx, which is quite ironic. If we want to defend jobs in this country and if we want to defend the industries that help fund this whole place in a way, we should not be funding these activists.

The other day it was revealed that half of the company tax revenue that the government are receiving to fund their runaway spending is now coming from the resources industry. It's coming from coal, gas, iron ore, copper, gold and lithium. It's coming from all of those industries, yet here we have a situation where the government is funding the organisations that want to kill that goose that's laying the golden eggs for our nation. Worse than that, by funding one of these groups, the government is disenfranchising other groups that certainly don't have the resources of large-scale green activist organisations. Some of these organisations have budgets of tens of millions of dollars.

This week we've had a group of First Nations people from the Northern Territory who want to see the Barossa project go forward. They want to see gas developed in the waters off the Northern Territory because they view that it will provide their communities with jobs, opportunities and an economic future. Where is the assistance for that group? We had Senator Wong say here today that she supports democracy and she supports helping all these different groups that are underfunded. I don't think green activists are underfunded—not these days, anyway. Certainly this First Nations group from the Northern Territory is underfunded. Where is the funding for them? Why aren't they getting assistance from this government in their fight against a radical greens movement that often goes to Indigenous communities and divides those communities. It tells them a bunch of fairytales and holds their hand while the challenge is on, but as soon as their job is done and the challenge in court is successful they desert them, and there is no future for those towns or areas of our country. The government has to be called out here because it says that it's for jobs and it's for these industries but it's funding the very people who want to kill them.

3:06 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

At the outset I was going to offer some commentary about what happened in question time. I was distracted slightly by Senator Canavan's outline of Marxist principles in his response. It always takes a former student Trot to clearly—

Well-read on these questions and probably has copies of the Australian and the Green Left Weekly in equal measure arriving in his office. There's the extraordinary hypocrisy of this assault on government funding for the Environmental Defenders Office. That there's a series of publicly funded extremists over there worrying about publicly funded radical action is a pretty extraordinary prospect.

We're approaching the halfway point of the last sitting fortnight. I'll tell you what we do know about this opposition and their line of questions this year. Instead of reflecting on the election results, considering their own political position and tacking back to the centre of Australian politics, where Australians want to see the political debate focused on the issues that matter for Australians, they have been baking in a hard-right extremist agenda and the most extreme hard-right leader of the Liberal Party in its history, Mr Dutton. That is what has happened here. It's all negative. It's all shouty. It's all angry. There are no solutions. There is no constructive approach to any of the problems that Australian families or the country are facing. It is hyperpartisan. It takes a link out of the sort of mouth-breathing extremist fringe of United States politics and the sort of face-to-camera pieces for social media that some of these characters indulge in.

What Australians want from political leaders is consistency. Minister Watt pointed out the reports in the media about the letter Senator Smith wrote on behalf of a person who was convicted of a sexual offence in relation to a child.

Letters from senators carry weight, because of their position. A sense of clarify about these kinds of offences is important. That's not the point. The point is: what has Mr Dutton's approach to these questions been? Well, at every chance that he gets he shouts, 'Paedophile, murderers, rapists.' But, when it comes to a letter written by one of his own senators in support of a person who very much fits that criminal profile, what do we hear from the Leader of the Opposition? Silence. You could hear a pin drop. When it's in his political interests, Mr Dutton shouts, 'Paedophile, rapists, murderer.' All of these people, by the way, have had to be released into the community because of his broken, dud legislation that he took no action to resolve. Always the tough talk but never the tough action.

For Mr Dutton it gets worse. When the then New South Wales opposition leader Judi McKay, who's a very good person, made an error that cost her the leadership of the New South Wales Labor Party and wrote a much less focused and more innocuous letter in relation to a person who'd committed similar offences, what did Mr Dutton say? He said her position was completely untenable. 'She's in big trouble and she is digging furiously. How many other criminals has she supported?' He is a tough-talking blowhard when it comes to people that he opposes, but he's soft and quiet when it comes to the same things happening on his own side. And he was nowhere to be seen when his dud legislation put the government in the position that it's been in.

3:12 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make my contribution to the motion moved by Senator Canavan. We've just seen an example of a government under pressure, a government that's not prepared to argue its own case on its own activities. It isn't prepared to offer a defence of the things that it's doing. It just gets nasty and it just gets personal. That's the only defence that this government has. It rolls up the nasty, cranks up the personal and attacks individuals on this side of politics. That's all it's got.

They can't defend the fact that they are funding the Environmental Defenders Office, which is attacking jobs in salmon farming in Tasmania, which is attacking forestry jobs around the country, which is undermining the work rights and the opportunity to work of workers in this country. Senator Canavan quite correctly identified Mr Fitzgibbon, the chair of the Australian Forest Products Association, as saying:

But it makes no sense to hand taxpayers' money to activists so they can take legal action against the very government that gave them the money.

That's what's happening here. Activists funded by rich donors and, indeed, governments, through the Environmental Defenders Office, are challenging value-creating projects in the law courts. That's what Mr Fitzgibbon said. And that's what this government are prepared to do—to defend. They'll come out and attack Mr Dutton. That's all they have got. But they won't defend their own actions. They won't defend their own policies, because they can't.

Workers around this country—and I can tell you workers in my home state of Tasmania—are furious at the situation they've been placed in, in relation to the salmon industry. That industry is being attacked by the Environmental Defenders Office over a decision that was made by a Labor minister in 2012, 11 years ago. If Minister Plibersek upholds the attack by the Environmental Defenders Office, for the first time it will open up a decision under the EPBC Act for a project that's been underway for that period of time. And what does that mean? It means it will creates a precedent for every single approval under the EPBC Act. That's what the actions of the Environmental Defenders Office in Tasmania against the salmon industry right now will do. That's what this government won't defend: they're not prepared to stand up and defend that. They talk about everybody's voices being heard, but these environmental groups—funded by rich donors who want to make their environmental conscience salved—aren't short of money, and they're taking action all around the country. Potentially, they could undermine every single decision made by an environment minister under the EPBC Act if Minister Plibersek creates the precedent that sits before her right now.

That's a matter for the workers in the $1 billion Tasmanian salmon industry that's under threat through this process, but think of all the other projects. I have spoken to plenty of other Labor figures over recent weeks who understand this in a heartbeat, that, potentially, the precedent set by Minister Plibersek opens up every single environmental decision made under the EPBC Act. That's a genuine threat, and the government isn't prepared to stand up and defend that. Their funding of the Environmental Defenders Office puts all these projects under threat. All they can do is attack Peter Dutton. They're completely and utterly void when it comes to defending their actions. They are now the government; they're the ones making the decisions, and they should be prepared and have the courage to stand up and take responsibility for their decisions. But they can't. They can only do one thing: ramp up the personal, bring out the nasty and attack one individual.

The real issue that's concerning Australians right now is decisions being made by this government to fund the Environmental Defenders Office, which is attacking the jobs of workers around the country. They should be prepared to stand up and defend that process, but they won't—they'll only attack Peter Dutton.

3:17 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I note that people in this chamber today, like those across Australia, will be remembering the permanent panic—the constant fear and alarm—that was the characteristic of the previous government. Everyday Australians would wake up and there would be another crisis, another disaster or another problem. They had everyone absolutely revved to the max with anxiety. And they think that's going to work for them again. That's why we heard that ridiculous defence from my colleague on the other side of the chamber there, who said that we're obsessed with Mr Dutton. That side might be obsessed with Mr Dutton, but we are obsessed with making sure that we govern with responsibility, with care and with dignity, and always mindful that we serve the Australian people. That is why they want to talk about their leadership—which is a joke, by the way.

I want to put on the record the words of my colleague, the Minister for Home Affairs in the other place, Clare O'Neil, because this is what's really going on here. She said about the Albanese Labor government:

We have only one priority and that is protecting the safety of the community within the limits of the law.

Today we were asked a question by Senator Paterson about individuals being released from detention. Let me tell you that, instead of all the fear and alarm, when the High Court decided to overturn 20 years of precedent and law, and delivered its judgement, the Labor Party, in government under Mr Albanese, respected that law because that is what we have to do. We are in here making law and we cannot break the law. That law meant that people who were in immigration detention had to be released because of the law of the land.

We got to work; we were already preparing. We immediately brought legislation to this parliament to make sure that we put the safety of Australians first. That's what we did. And those opposite voted against bringing in protections, but not just protections under law and bringing in immediate legislation. We put $255 million into the job, and we put $88 million into the AFP. We put $150 million into the Australian Border Force and $17 million into the Department of Public Prosecutions because that's what responsible governments do. They accept the law. They create good law in response to changing situations. You fund what has to be done. Instead we had Mr Dutton. Let's look at his record. We had years and years of him telling Australians that he closed the back door to Australia, but now we find out that he left the front gate wide open and swinging in the breeze. He searched for political division. His priority wasn't the safety or the mental health and wellbeing of Australians. His priority was to sow seeds of division—one Australian against another.

Photo of Andrew McLachlanAndrew McLachlan (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

A point of order, Senator Fawcett?

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Imputing motivation to a member or senator.

Photo of Andrew McLachlanAndrew McLachlan (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator O'Neill, I ask you to restrain yourself, and I just clarify: are you seeking withdrawal?

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I can understand why those—

Photo of Andrew McLachlanAndrew McLachlan (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator O'Neill, Senator Fawcett is seeking withdrawal, so I ask you to withdraw with the proper conduct of the chamber.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I withdraw, but let's look at the record. Mr Dutton left us with a visa backlog of a million people. He cut compliance officers by 50 per cent. And, for all his talk about being tough on boat arrivals, who can forget that we found a boat floating up the Daintree River? Who can forget the disgraceful text messages affair on election day? Talking tough might get you some headlines, and it might get you on a few television shows, but being in government is not about getting on TV and getting a two-minute grab. It's about doing the hard yards. It's about getting policy right. It's about being consistent in what you say and what you do, and what we've seen is a huge difference between what Mr Dutton says and what he does.

In 2021, Mr Dutton said: 'Why would a member of parliament defend anyone who has been convicted of paedophilia?' On Sunday this week, we heard from the West Australian that one of Mr Dutton's own assistant ministers here in the chamber, Senator Dean Smith, did exactly that. He has written letters in support of a paedophile who was convicted of sex with a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old. Mr Dutton has said nothing about that, yet he continues to claim that he's out there looking after the Australian people. There's only one party that will defend the safety of the Australian people. That is the Labor Party. What you'll see from Mr Dutton and his colleagues is constant alarm and fear and nothing else.

3:22 pm

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will respond to the comment that has just been made that there's only one party who will defend the Australian people. I can think of no better words to use than those of someone who is probably one of Australia's recognised pre-eminent journalists when it comes to foreign affairs and defence matters—someone who has been critical of my own side of politics. He has written in the Australian just this week:

The Albanese government is coming apart in foreign policy, national security and defence. It has become incoherent and indecipherable. It consistently tries to hide basic information, can't maintain cabinet unity or policy consistency, its ministers frequently contradict each other and often seem to have no idea what they're talking about.

I think that describes the fact that, in relation to the issue that was raised by my colleague Senator Paterson that we've just been hearing about from those opposite, the government was caught flat-footed in terms of responding to the High Court decision. As they said, the court made a ruling and the government needs to respond to that and respect it, but the fact is that a government that governs well anticipates these possible outcomes and actually plans what they will do in order to respond to them. So the comments by Mr Sheridan not only in this area but particularly in the area of defence and national security are, I think, apt, and the Australian people would be well served by looking not at what is said but at what actually happens. I come back to Mr Sheridan and another part of his article, where he says:

The government started off well—

and he's mentioning here China but security issues generally.

Albanese made strong, substantial speeches in opposition.

But now it looks as though those were purely designed to neutralise national security as an election issue.

So it's important to look at what the Albanese government does, as opposed to what it says.

Can I come to the other issue that was raised by coalition senators at the start of the debate, which is the funding of the Environmental Defender's Office. My colleagues mentioned Mr Joel Fitzgibbon. As a former staunch and very high-profile member of Labor governments, he has criticised this funding. Why has he done that? He has done it for a number of reasons. He has mentioned the fact that it kills jobs and investment, but why is that investment important? That investment is important because when I speak to constituents in South Australia, my home state, the No. 1 priority—and the No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 priorities—they raise with me is the cost of living, and central to that is the price of electricity. Far from the reduction of $270-odd dollars that was promised by this government multiple times before the election, South Australian prices have gone up, on average, by $512 for households and $1,310 for small businesses. That's 24 per cent for households and 29 per cent for small businesses. That is hurting people. It's hurting the ability of small businesses to remain viable and employ people, and it's hurting households. That's not to mention mortgages and other things.

Part of the reason those prices are going up is that, more and more, gas is becoming one of the baseload power sources in the market, and supply is constrained. According to the Australian Energy Market Operator and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the east coast may well run short of gas as soon as 2024 because of supplies being constrained. This could force prices to spike, increasing electricity bills, and cause gaps in the energy market. Why is this happening? Partly it's because groups like the Environmental Defenders Office, now with money from the Albanese government, are taking action against groups like Santos, a good South Australian company that for many decades has been responsibly providing the nation with energy. Its Barossa gas project, off the Northern Territory coast, was stopped in its tracks. Even though Santos had followed all of the requirements, according to the well-proven and established regulations, for consultation, it was stopped by the Environmental Defenders Office taking action on behalf of a group within the Tiwi Islands. This government is not good for Australia's defence, nor is it good for the cost of living.

Question agreed to.