Feb 13, 2007

Speech – Matter of Public Importance debate, business

SPEECH – Matter of Public Importance debate, Business

13 February 2007

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler—Manager of Opposition Business) (3.35 p.m.)—I rise particularly to oppose the changes to the matter of public importance debate. As the name suggests, the MPI is the key debate of the day in this parliament. Indeed, the House of Representatives Practice says:

The MPI is one of the principal avenues available to private Members to initiate immediate debate on a matter which is of current concern.

On page 576 it goes on to say:

The matter of public importance procedure developed from a provision in the standing orders adopted in 1901 which permitted a Member to move formally the adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance.

This provision has served this parliament for 106 years. What we have is an arrogant government that wants to stifle debate in an election year, a government determined to avoid scrutiny and accountability, a government prepared to take this extraordinary step in order to particularly stifle the three Independents in this House. But it is not just them the government seeks to stifle but also the members of the opposition and the members of their increasingly nervous backbench who they do not want participating in the key debate of the day. Why is this occurring? Last year there were 50 debates on matters of public importance in this House. Of those, only 13 went for more than an hour, but, of those 13, six went more than an hour by 90 seconds or less.

We have here the jackboots of the Leader of the House, coming in here and changing standing orders. This was due to be debated last night, but it was deferred until today. Why? So the government could gag this very debate about the gagging of matters of public importance in this parliament. The only debates to have gone for more than an hour have been over critical issues such as the war in Iraq. We saw today the refusal of the government leader, the Prime Minister, to have a debate on the war in Iraq. They do not want scrutiny outside the parliament—they will not turn up for debate—and inside parliament they want to stifle the debate. They want to cut off the oxygen from the right of members to put forward their views. We have had the war in Iraq.

What were the other issues on which the debate went for more than an hour last year?

Mr Katter—Drought.

Mr ALBANESE—Climate change and the drought. We might see a few more Independents from regional Australia, given the National Party’s abrogation of its responsibility and its sell-out of its own constituency. It is very possible that that will occur. What certainly should occur is that this parliament, in one debate every day, should have the right to have a proper exchange with proper time limits. This is an attack on democracy which is consistent with the Howard government’s approach to these issues.

It is quite clear why the Prime Minister wants to stop MPIs—because they hold him to account and he wants to avoid that accountability. During question time today, in the last question asked by the Leader of the Opposition, I lost count of how many members from this side of the House were thrown out and excluded from the parliamentary process. Over on that side there were constant interjections but not a single warning, let alone anyone being thrown out of the parliament. We come into this parliament day after day and expect the odds to be tilted in the government’s favour. Every match is played on their home ground and in every match they appoint the referee. We understand that that is the case. But on the critical matter of public importance of the day we should not have a silencing of dissent—and that is exactly what we are seeing here.

In the Senate, since the government took control, we have seen a whole series of procedures put in place to remove accountability and to remove transparency. We have borne witness to gags and guillotines on fundamental pieces of legislation such as the debate on the most significant changes to workplace laws in over 100 years. We have seen one-day inquiries on significant legislation such as the full privatisation of Telstra. We have seen nation-changing bills rammed through the parliament: the draconian changes to the welfare system, the antiterrorism legislation and the abolition of voluntary student unionism, just to name a few. Now we are seeing a similar attack in this House.

Labor and the Independents—and, if the truth be allowed, many members of the government backbench as well who have complained to the opposition about these provisions—are united in our view that this motion is a gross abuse of parliamentary process and a gross abuse of democracy. The Howard government’s arrogant abuse of members’ rights to engage in parliamentary debate is treating not the members of parliament but the electorate with contempt. We are elected to represent the views of those who have sent us to this House, and we are privileged to be representatives in this House, but voters will remember how they and democracy are being treated.

The arrogance of this government, which this particular provision highlights, does not stop there. One of the other measures that the Leader of the House has moved seeks to clarify the role of the newly created Howard government rank of assistant minister. The Leader of the House has proposed changes to standing orders that seek to define the role of this new so-called assistant minister. When the list came out, when the Prime Minister appointed his new frontbench, many people would have wondered what this assistant minister status was. We know from today’s changes to standing orders, which rule out any scrutiny by the parliament of assistant ministers, that assistant ministers are essentially parliamentary secretaries with a different name.

Take, for example, the new Assistant Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, the member for Parkes. Anyone who has seen the member for Parkes perform in this parliament will know why it is imperative for the government to shield him from parliamentary scrutiny, because he is incapable of answering a question on the floor of this parliament. Yet, if you go to his office, RG 85, the nameplate says ‘Assistant Minister for the Environment and Water Resources’. If you visit his website it will say the same: ‘Assistant Minister’. He is no parliamentary secretary; he has been given this high status.

But you do not have to do that. You can just ask him. The member for Parkes was quoted as saying that he has a ‘dream portfolio’ because water will be his main responsibility. On ABC radio on 24 January he said:

The problem has been getting them [the states] to actually do anything about it, so I’m very excited about water being my area of responsibility in the future.

The member for Parkes’s dream is Australia’s nightmare. Having this man in charge of water is something that no Australian would want, particularly not those Australians in rural and regional communities. But as the shadow minister for water, I cannot ask him questions, even though he himself says that he is responsible for the nation’s water crisis. We all know that his appointment is all about Nationals favours, not national interest. It is all about trying to hide the fact that he was demoted and that the member for Sturt was not promoted, because the member for Sturt is the other person who has been given this title of parliamentary secretary—in his case Parliamentary Secretary and Assistant Minister for Health and Ageing.

You have to feel sorry for the member for Sturt. We on this side are the great party of compassion in this nation. The member for Sturt was actually a shadow minister. It is hard to believe, but when the current foreign minister was the Leader of the Opposition—and, yes, that really did happen—he appointed the member for Sturt as a shadow minister. It was from 1994 to 1996. But since they came to government in 1996, the member for Sturt has sat up the back, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Imagine how you would feel after being let down again, if you are sitting there and you look at the minister for local government, the former Minister for Community Services, the minister for tourism—all these people who jumped the queue ahead of him, as he would see it, and he gets overlooked again. So you can imagine the discussion: ‘This is unfair. I have been loyal, Prime Minister. I have been loyal to you.’ We know that that is not true, but that is beside the point. He would have said that. Then: ‘Please give me something.’ So what do they do? They invent this title.

We can see the talent that they have on their front bench—the parliamentary secretaries who cannot read the Notice Paper! If you had read it you would know that the creation of the assistant minister position is all about the demotion of one person, the member for Parkes, and another person’s—the member for Sturt’s—failure to be promoted. These changes are symptomatic of a government that is out of control in its arrogance, a government that is under pressure, a government that is failing in its obligations to the Australian people on issues, and a government that is determined to hide from proper debate. We saw it again today: the Leader of the Opposition standing up saying: ‘You want to debate Iraq; let’s bring it on. Bring on a televised public debate.’

This is a government that wants to avoid scrutiny—from its own backbench, from the Independents and from the opposition. Labor will oppose these changes and we commit ourselves to overturning them in government, because we think that a good opposition and good parliamentary processes are a foundation stone of parliamentary democracy. You cannot have a one-way system. We accept that it is stacked against us day after day, that the rules are set by those opposite, that we play on their home ground, and that they set the rules and appoint the referee, but this is one debate in the parliament every day which is scrutinised by the Australian people. There are many people out there who are listening to this very debate, who listen to this part of parliament because they know it has been in existence for 106 years. This is not a conservative party; this is not a party that has respect for tradition; this is a neoconservative party that trashes tradition, trashes democracy and trashes open parliamentary processes and debate. If you do not agree with it, it will stomp on you. That is what is happening to the Independents and to the opposition with these provisions being put forward today.

Labor will oppose this proposition. We will stand with the Independents. I call upon those members of the government backbench who are concerned about these issues to join with us to uphold parliamentary standards, because this is an unnecessary attack. No case has been put forward by the Leader of the House to justify these changes. The fact that we will probably see, I predict, a gagging of this debate just underlines how undemocratic this government is—how it has changed since it got control of the numbers in the Senate.