Mar 7, 2008

Transcript of Press Conference – Commonwealth Parliament Offices

Subject: Friday sittings; Bankstown Airport

ALBANESE: On the 20th December last year, the Government announced that Private Members’ Business would be transferred to Fridays as part of our commitment to Parliamentary reform. This was about enhancing the status of Private Members’ Business and also increasing the time for both Government business and Private Members’ Business.

The Opposition at the time raised no objection to this. This was not surprising, given that historically Private Members’ Business gives great opportunities to the Opposition. It gives opportunities to the Opposition to move Private Members’ Business to raise issues of concern to their electorate and to the nation.

It also gives opportunity to Government backbenchers. Historically, Private Members’ Business has not been for the purpose of Ministers, nor has it been for the purpose of having votes. That indeed is the very characteristic that gives Private Members’ Business its attractiveness.

Far too often, I think , the Australian public would see the Parliament consisting of just a Prime Minister and a Leader of the Opposition engaging in conflict. Parliament is much more than that. Parliament is the contribution that local members can give in ideas in enhancing their policy agendas.

On the last Friday sitting of the Parliament we saw a disgraceful performance from an Opposition searching for relevance. We saw two members of the Parliament asked to leave by the Speaker and then refused to do so. We saw a deliberate and premeditated attack on our parliamentary processes by the oppositions.

After the first suspension was held I asked the Leader of the Opposition to give a commitment that further disruptive behaviour would not occur. He gave that commitment. In spite of that commitment just on hour later we saw a cardboard cut out brought into the House of Representatives Chamber, we saw a number of Members of the Opposition including senior frontbenchers standing at the dispatch box and behind screaming abuse at the Deputy Speaker who was in the chair and refusing to abide by her decisions. Hansard recalls myself calling Dr Nelson to account and recalling the commitment that he gave and asking him to show leadership on this issue.

It remains unclear to me whether this was a breach of faith by the leader of the Opposition or whether he was simply unable to control members of his own political party.

What is clear is that ,since then, a number of senior frontbenchers of the Opposition, including Andrew Robb and Joe Hockey have stated that they will engage in disruptive conduct on future Fridays as a conscious premeditated way of undermining the standing of the Parliaments.

Every time the Parliament is brought into disrepute it undermines our democracy and undermines the standing of politicians in it. Parliament sets the rules and regulations by which society is governed. Those rules, laws and regulations aren’t voluntary and when you have Members of Parliament prepared to resist and oppose the rules and regulations which have been properly established by the Parliament, it undermines the Parliament’s standing and is a threat to our democracy.

As a result of this, I have written to the Leader of the Opposition today informing him that we will be transferring Private Members’ Business from Fridays to Monday evenings in both the main chamber of the Parliament and also in the main committee. The government has a big legislative agenda and a mandate to implement it. We’re not prepared to lose one minute of government business time that has been assigned. This will result in a downgrading of the Private Members’ Business section of the Parliament from that which was envisaged on Fridays but the responsibility for that lies with the Opposition. We think that this was a good Parliamentary reform which could be revised in the future but we are not prepared, given as Government we have a responsibility to promote the standing of Parliament in the community, to have that further undermined.

Happy to take questions

JOURNALIST: Will the Opposition see this as a victory given its almost childlike behaviour by the Opposition [inaudible] …Should the focus be on heavier penalties perhaps …?

ALBANESE: Some of the penalties will be imposed by the Speaker no doubt but it is quite clear that many of members of the Opposition are struggling to turn up to the Parliament four days a week, let alone five. We are seeing day after day revelations of Members of the Opposition playing golf while Parliament is sitting, going out to lunch and not bothering to come back for question time, travelling overseas on private business and not dealing with their constituents and their responsibilities. Wilson Tuckey lecturing people on cruise ships about climate change adds a new element of bizarreness to the Opposition’s behaviour.

Whilst as someone who spent twelve years in Opposition, I understand it can often be frustrating, what occurred on that Friday, with as you put it the childish behaviour which  would have been completely unacceptable at my son’s year two-class, let alone in the Federal Parliament of the nation.

It is quite clear that many Members of the Opposition do have a born-to-rule mentality and simply won’t accept that they are no longer the Government and are therefore prepared to engage in disruptive behaviour. The analogy I gave on radio ,with Joe Hockey the other day , of the authority of the Speaker is a bit similar to people who turn up to play a cricket match, they don’t like the umpires decision when they are given out , so they refuse to go and decide to just trash the game. Parliament is more serious than a cricket match and it requires the authority of the Speaker to be paramount. I think in terms of where the Government has determined to go with Private Members’ Business , it is regrettable from the fact we had a genuine attempt at bipartisan reform that didn’t advantage the Government. Indeed senior commentators such as Laura Tingle and Michelle Grattan, who have been around the Parliament a while, acknowledge that this presented real opportunities for the Opposition.

I think the Opposition – certainly many of their members have already regretted their actions and have been big enough to apologise for them. But you still have senior members of the Opposition and the Leader of the Opposition refusing to apologise for the conduct that took place on that Friday.

JOURNALIST: There are some questions about whether or not the Friday sittings were constitutional. Did you receive a ruling on that front that played into this decision today?

ALBANESE: There are no questions over that except in the fantasies of some members of the Opposition. Let’s be clear about this. The Standing Orders are framed and approved by the Clerks and officers of the Parliament. These questions were raised of the Speaker of the Parliament and he gave an answer to the Parliament. We received advice from the Australian Government Solicitor prior to these Standing Orders being changed.

It also particularly relevant that these Standing Orders were exactly the same as the Standing Orders that were introduced under the Howard Government to operate on Mondays and Tuesdays between 6.30 and 8 o’clock – exactly the same Standing Orders.

And what we’ve had here is an Opposition which went into Parliament – Private Members Business has never contained votes, that’s not what it does. Ministers such Brendan Nelson also know that Private Members Business isn’t a time when Ministers or Prime Ministers go into Parliament, move motions, second motions or speak on motions. And for that I’d ask Brendan Nelson or another Minister , during the entire period of the Howard Government , to indicate when they participated in Private Members Business on Monday. They didn’t. It’s for Private Members Business – there aren’t votes during Private Members Business because Private Members Business has been sacrosanct. It’s the time when it’s bipartisan.

The concern that has been raised by the Opposition was simply because they were unable to put forward any argument of substance. They know that these changes were legal because they introduced them during the last term of Parliament.

JOURNALIST: Inaudible

ALBANESE: Well time will tell but I think anyone who has observed the Parliament objectively during the first 2 weeks will conclude two things. One is that some of the changes that have taken place on the basis of rule changes have improved the way the Parliament has operated. We are having more Ministerial Statements, more questions, they are about improving standards.

Some of them are conventions. Any objective observer would say that the Speaker has presided over a Parliament which has been fairer in its operation than perhaps it was in the past. So a conscious decision to do that that’s been obvious.

With regard to the Opposition, the behaviour that was exhibited on the last sitting Friday is the sort of thing that perhaps a bunch of hard right-wing young Liberals might have thought of at 3 or 4 am in a bar in Canberra, after one or two too many gin and tonics. They wouldn’t have actually gone into Parliament and done it and behaved like that. The fact that Brendan Nelson was complicit and sat in the Chamber while this occurred , I think,  was to his great detriment.

And I’ll say this. I have had some criticism , over the years, of the way John Howard led the Liberal Party. But a political party lead by John Howard would not have behaved that way on the floor of the House of Representatives. Brendan Nelson has some explaining to do and he can start with an apology to the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House.

ALBANESE: It’s up to… there are of course Standing Orders that provide for the running of the Parliament. There’s also conventions and there’s also commonsense. Commonsense tells  you that you don’t at anytime behave in the way they did on that Friday. The Standing Orders provided that only one person is standing and addressing the Speaker on the basis of getting the call – that you don’t just have what occurred at one stage on the Friday which was four or five men standing screaming abuse at the Deputy Speaker when she was presiding over the Parliament.

I sincerely hope that if they’ve had the feedback, which I’ve had through my office and members of the Government have had through both through our electorate office and our ministerial offices, then they’ve have a good look at themselves and the way they conduct themselves and recognise that Oppositions have a responsibility, as well as Governments, to behaviour in an appropriate way.

ALBANESE: Look, I read this morning’s report, looked through it for some substance and couldn’t find much frankly. I think when it comes to Bankstown Airport being Sydney’s second airport it simply won’t fly – it simply won’t fly as a proposal.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible)

ALBANESE: Well this isn’t a new proposal. This has been around for sometime – there were attempts at one stage under the previous Government considered moving some of the planes from Sydney Airport to the Bankstown Airport and it becoming a second airport. It simply won’t fly because it’s an inappropriate site. There are a whole range of practical issues of where it is – around heavily densely populated suburbs. There’s issues of flight paths, confusion in that it’s quite close aeronautically to Sydney Airport and it’s simply is a proposal that won’t go anywhere, if indeed it is a proposal at all, and I’m not sure that it is.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible)

ALBANESE: I’m just saying Bankstown Airport will not be Sydney’s second airport. Full stop.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible)

ALBANESE: Look, look Bankstown Airport plays an important role in general aviation in particular and it will continue to play that role, but it will not be, it will not be Sydney’s second airport and the Government clearly is saying that we would reject any proposal, were one to come to us and there has been no proposal come to us at all along those lines. Thanks very much, thanks very much. Thank you.