Feb 22, 2008

Transcript of Press Conference – Parliament House

Subjects: Friday Parliament sittings, Opposition members’ behaviour

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Today the Opposition had a choice. Their choice was whether they were prepared to come to Parliament and raise issues of interest to the electorate and raise issues of interest to the nation. Unfortunately they showed the disarray that they are in by choosing as a conscious decision to cause maximum disruption to Parliament.

Those people who have observed the Parliament in the last fortnight with any objectivity acknowledge that there has been a number of changes. Some of these changes inevitably are through changes to rules and changes to Standing Orders. Some of them are cultural and rely upon a change in attitude. I refer to the Speaker and they way that he chooses, he or she chooses to preside over the Chamber.

I think it’s very disappointing that the Opposition has lost its way. It’s got no ideas to put forward for the nation. It has taken out their frustration at their defeat at the last federal election on the Parliament itself.

The Australian people will reject an Opposition that engages in negative conduct. In the changes that we’ve put forward before the Parliament, I want to go through them. The first is the number of sitting days. We will have 82 this year, the former government had 67 on average. In Question Times we will have 67 this year. The former government had 63. Ministerial Statements has been an issue of concern for some time. This week alone we have had four Ministerial Statements. All of last year we had two. Only two. We didn’t have Ministerial Statements about a range of critical issues and indeed of course and most infamously the Parliament wasn’t even consulted about Australia going to war.

I think that people will have an objective look at these processes, will acknowledge that, in particular the Speaker and his fair presiding over the Parliament has been on show for all. These changes to parliamentary sittings give Private Members an opportunity to put forward ideas. Most of what the Australian public see on the news each night is the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in Question Time. Parliament is more than that.

Parliament is an opportunity to put forward ideas and to debate them. The first item of Private Members Business today, for example, is about the issue of organ donation – a non-partisan issue, an issue which many parliamentarians are concerned about and an opportunity to raise these issues.

I think that the defying of the Speaker that occurred in the Parliament today brings a great deal of shame indeed on the Member for Moncrieff and his failure to represent his constituents. I’ve been in Parliament for 12 years. I have not seen a member of a major party defy the Speaker before and have to be removed from the Parliament during that 12-year period.

It occurred twice during the previous government — once Paul Zammit as an Independent chose consciously to get some attention – to get some attention. The other two people of course were the Greens Senators who during the US President’s address to the joint sitting of Parliament had to be removed. The Leader of the Opposition sits now in that group – in that group. And the fact is that if people choose to cause disruption in the Parliament, Standing Orders provide for consistent interruptions if they so choose to do.

But I think what it reflects is that we now have an Opposition that doesn’t know where it stands on Work Choices; that doesn’t know where it stands on climate change; that doesn’t know where it stands on education and skills; that doesn’t know where it stands on infrastructure, that’s got no positive agenda so has been reduced to a rabble attacking the good order in the Parliament.

I think it is sad for Parliament because good governments require a good Opposition. And in Question Time over this fortnight as well we’ve had on average almost 21 questions. We’ve had three days where we have gone beyond 20 questions in the House of Representatives. On one of those days, the Opposition couldn’t even get to their feet to ask us an 11th question.

The last ten years of the Howard Government there was only one day, only one day in which there were more than 20 questions. One day in 10 years under the previous government. Three days in two weeks under this government. Ministerial Statements -two in a whole year from the previous government – four in a week from the new government.

In terms of the processes of the Standing Orders people would be aware that they are precisely the same Standing Orders for deferment of divisions and quorums that were introduced under the previous government, under the previous government. They were exactly the same provisions from 6.30 to 8.00 on Monday and Tuesday. I’ve been in this place for 12 years. I have never seen Private Members Business interrupted – ever. Private Members Business is the time in which we give respect to every Member of the House of Representatives who has been elected to represent their electorate particularly for the back bench.

But I do note, I do note that the Opposition don’t have that many back benchers because they put everyone on the front bench. They have a front bench of 45, of 45. I myself have three or four people shadowing my portfolio. A front bench of 45 was produced because in order to secure votes for the leadership everyone got on the front bench. I think that this just shows that this is an Opposition that has very much lost its way.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: The removal of a Member from the House is a serious matter. When they’ve been named it’s a particularly serious matter. So serious that the House gets to vote on it. But it hasn’t on this occasion. It seems bizarre that the House is going to vote on this in two weeks time. Doesn’t it make it quite a barren ruling by the Speaker?

ALBANESE: No not at all. The Speaker, I think, tried to uphold the dignity of the House under extremely difficult circumstances in which some Members, some Members led by the Leader of the Opposition, had made a conscious decision to engage in extremely disorderly conduct. That was the end in itself. From time to time Parliament people have raised issues in order to get issues on the agenda. This case, this case was the end in itself, was the disruption, the tactic was clearly to get someone thrown out, to push it to the point.

Now the Member for Moncrieff was asked to leave the House, under the Standing Order which allows people to be asked to leave for one hour. Now I’m familiar with that Standing Order. And every time it has been used, what people do is they stand up and respect the Speaker and they leave, and they leave. That’s what they do, that’s what they do. The Member concerned chose consciously to defy, to defy a Speaker who I think in a very short period of time has got respect from both sides of the chamber and from the general public.

You can’t have a functioning Parliament in which someone refuses a directive of the Speaker and that is why he has been named. I note that the Speaker was forced to suspend the sitting of the House for 15 minutes because there were some people on the Opposition front bench who were encouraging the Member for Moncrieff to re-enter the chamber, to re-enter the chamber in spite of the fact that the Speaker had made a ruling. I believe that would have been completely unprecedented and just quite frankly, quite frankly, unacceptable to the Australian public.

And the concern here of course is that politicians will all be marked down if the Parliament doesn’t function effectively and with dignity. And that sort of behaviour I think brings a great deal of discredit to those people in the Opposition tactics room who sat around and devised this so-called strategy of disrupting Private Members Business which has been sacrosanct since Federation formed this Parliament.

JOURNALIST: Does it send a good signal or bad signal that the Prime Minister has extended Parliament by one day but he is not here?

ALBANESE: I think that the fact that the Prime Minister today is in Walgett pursuing indigenous issues – we have a life expectancy gap in this nation of 17 years between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians – there are ideas that come up from Parliament there are also ideas that come from the community.

The Prime Minister will later today be visiting Mackay, an area in which floods have caused a great deal of distress for the residents of Mackay. Today isn’t designed for Ministers to have an opportunity. Today is designed for Members of Parliament to raise issues, just as Private Members’ Business saw the previous Prime Minister not sit in the chamber for one minute of it, for one minute of it.

So let’s be clear here, there has been no significant change in the way that the Parliament has operated. No significant change whatsoever, not one thing, not one Standing Order change takes away anything from the Opposition. We had four Question Times before we have question times now. We had three MPIs before, we have three MPIs now. There hasn’t been a single change. And you compare that, you compare that, you compare that with what’s occurred in the Senate.

In the Senate just this week and Thursday of last week, three select committees were established. Six members, two to be nominated by the Leader of the Government, two to be nominated by the Leader of the Opposition, one to be nominated by minority groups or independents. Those committees will have a quorum of three, meaning that the Opposition can meet with itself, can meet with itself and conduct business, it can have sub-committees of two which consist of just Opposition members – they have unlimited staff, facilities and resources, they can appoint other external specialists as needed. This is at a time when the standing committees in the Senate are yet to be given work to do, yet to be properly established.

So let’s have a look here at the two houses. One, in the Senate you have a ruthless use of the numbers, a ruthless use of the numbers. In the House of Representatives nothing taken off from the Opposition; just additional time for Government Business, additional time for Private Members Business … [INAUDIBLE]… additional Ministerial Statements.

This is a good reform, a good reform that I note the Opposition did nothing to oppose in December, did nothing to oppose in January, only came up with this Opposition to these changes just before Parliament returned, because they had nothing else to say.

JOURNALIST: Does it make a farce of Friday sittings?

ALBANESE: The Opposition, I note, which says that these Friday sittings aren’t worthwhile, is prepared to turn up, to participate in the Friday sittings. They can’t have it both ways. They can’t have it both ways. But if they do turn up, if they do turn up, I would call upon them, call upon them to actually behave in a way which is dignified, in a way which is constructive, and in a manner that their constituents expect them to by raising these Private Members Business motions and putting issues on the agenda.

There is a whole range of Private Members Business issues. To name one that I did as a backbench member – I put same sex superannuation on the agenda, on the agenda through Private Members Business. You can actually have a real impact in the way that politics is done in this country as a Member of Parliament.

If you don’t think that, if you don’t think that you can have an input as a Member of the House of Representatives, if you think it’s all about the Government and the Opposition during Question Time then I actually think that some of the Members of the opposition who are clearly frustrated with the fact that they are in opposition need to come to terms with it. Come to terms with it and move on.

JOURNALIST: In December you put out the schedule and you put out a statement …[INAUDIBLE] … Are you satisfied that you didn’t mislead people in that December statement?

ALBANESE: I put out in December a full timing of what would occur in the Parliament, a full schedule of what would occur on Friday. In the statement, I spoke about Private Members Business being conducted on Friday. I spoke about additional time for Government Business and additional time for Private Members Business. This is what this does. This is what this does.

JOURNALIST: Did you say there was no Question Time?

ALBANESE: I put out the schedule. You got it. Every member of the press gallery got the schedule at the time, at the time.

Now, this is of course, we need to be clear about the way that this occurs. Monday, Tuesday, same way that the Standing Orders operates. Thursday in the Senate every day, every Thursday in the Senate, under the Standing Orders, there aren’t quorums called and there aren’t divisions … called on Thursday night in the Senate. That is the way it operates, that is the way that the main committee operates, that’s the way it occurs.

So there is nothing and there was no objection, no statement, except by, I think to be fair by one or two Members, individual Members, no statement from the Manager of Opposition Business, no statement from the Leader of the Opposition. It is not a partisan move. This is only a partisan move if the Opposition concede that they actually don’t have any ideas and nothing to put forward for Parliament on Fridays.

JOURNALIST: If it’s the case that this is your opportunity to get things on the agenda, why were newspaper photographers excluded from the chamber under instruction from the Speaker and the Sergeant-at-Arms? Given that it is a new arrangement, although not necessarily without precedent, how confident are you that the Sergeant-at Arms and the Speaker have the authority of the new Parliament to forcibly removed Mr Ciobo from the chamber?

ALBANESE: This isn’t something that’s an opportunity for me to put things on the agenda. Far from it. It’s for back benchers to put things on the agenda. I’m now a member of the government. I have a lot to do as Minister for the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government. I won’t be moving Private Members motions on Fridays

JOURNALIST: …[INAUDIBLE]…

ALBANESE: So to make that point, to make that point, this is an opportunity for everyone in the Opposition and for back bench members of the government to put forward these proposals.

With regard to the issues, any issues relating to photographers or the way that the House operates, that’s a matter for the Speaker. The Government…

JOURNALIST: That’s a copout isn’t it?

ALBANESE: No let’s be very clear here. In the lead up to Parliament sitting, I had no meetings with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, no meetings, consultations, no discussions in the lead up to Parliament sitting. Last week I had no meetings with the Speaker of the House of Representatives. I actually thought that rather than the way it used to work, I’ll be careful here, with, I think, rulings clearly changing in terms of, depending upon, the way that suggestions perhaps had been made to the Speaker, I thought that wasn’t the way to do it. I had a cup of tea with the Speaker this week to congratulate him on his election. So no direct …

I don’t think Sam’s asking about whether you had any meetings or whether you tried to influence the Speaker. I think the question is … [INAUDIBLE]… why newspaper photographers aren’t allowed to take photographs?

ALBANESE: My opinion, my opinion is that newspaper photographers should be allowed into the House of Representatives at all times. That is my view.

JOURNALIST: So will you move to change the current rules just to have open access at all times?

ALBANESE: That is a matter for the Speaker…[INAUDIBLE]…. the Procedures Committee. I understand that television cameras have access to footage. I certainly wasn’t aware that photographers were excluded until it was raised with me by a photographer during the suspension.

JOURNALIST: And what about the legality of the removal of Mr Ciobo without a vote? Are you confident that that has the authority of Parliament without a vote?

ALBANESE: What do you mean without a vote? The Standing Orders provide for the Speaker to preside over the Parliament. I’m confident, absolutely confident in the Speaker and the Speaker’s rulings. I think it’s really of critical importance that all sides of the house take a step back and have a look at what this Speaker is trying to do. Have a look at what the Speaker is trying to do…

JOURNALIST: …[INAUDIBLE]…

ALBANESE: Standing Orders – I think it’s 94a but it might have changed with the re-ordering of numbers – the one hour suspension when he was asked to leave, which is the Speaker’s prerogative, he chose to defy that ruling again. Something that I’ve never seen a member of a major political party do since in terms of the Parliament, I understand that the last member of a major political party to be removed was the Member for O’Connor on 16 May 1991, the time before that was 1970.

These are not regular events because people actually respect Speakers’ rulings, whether you agree with them or not and there are times where I haven’t agreed with the Speaker’s ruling and been asked to leave for raising a point of order. I respected that and I left.

JOURNALIST: Given …[INAUDIBLE]… would you be comfortable into the future when normal rules are applied of having no vote in the Parliament when someone is thrown out….

ALBANESE: They actually are the rules now.

JOURNALIST: …[INAUDIBLE]… You then moved a subsequent motion to exclude him for 24 hours after the Speaker named him…

ALBANESE: The Speaker named him …

JOURNALIST: So he now can’t come back in presumably for the rest of the day without …[INAUDIBLE]… there has to be a division.

ALBANESE: No, there will be a division on that motion…

JOURNALIST: In two weeks time?

ALBANESE: In two weeks time.

JOURNALIST: But does that mean…[INAUDIBLE]…

ALBANESE: The Speaker is in charge of the Parliament. He makes the rulings – it is up to the Speaker to make the rulings. He did that today, and I think that the Member for Moncrieff should really have consideration to the issues with regard to his constituents. One more question.

JOURNALIST: On another issue what have been your dealings with Mr Scimone of Wollongong Council?

ALBANESE: None

JOURNALIST: None whatsoever? Not even within the workings of the NSW party?

ALBANESE: I’ve met him but none other than that.

JOURNALIST: Just with regard to Infrastructure Australia and your overall proposal or plan to have it audit infrastructure needs and then prioritise. Given the inflation problems we are facing …[INAUDIBLE]…how they’re much worse than first thought, have you given any thought or are you in the process of accelerating the establishment of Infrastructure Australia and that audit, trying to accelerate that process so that the infrastructure bottlenecks that we’re being told contribute to inflation can be dealt with more quickly than otherwise?

ALBANESE: This will be the last question. In terms of our response yes, one of the things we have done is establish the COAG Working Group. It already had its first meeting in January. It’s meeting again in Brisbane in two weeks time and it will make recommendations to the COAG meeting in March. That’s one track to try to speed up the discussion. I’ve also asked the National Transport Council to develop a national transport policy framework.

What that means is that once we have the Infrastructure Australian Statutory Advisory Council – on day one of their first meeting they won’t be sitting there with a blank piece of paper. They will be sitting there with a submission from the National Transport Council. They’ll be sitting there with a framework that’s arisen out of the COAG discussion, which I chair as the Minister, which involves each of the states and the territories.

I think it is critical that we move as a matter of urgency. We’re trying to put the frameworks in place. And of course, Infrastructure Australia, the legislation I introduced into the Parliament yesterday, I would call upon the Opposition to constructively support that legislation, but we’re not just sitting back and just waiting, we are putting in place mechanisms to ensure that we can pursue the infrastructure policy agenda that we have.

Thanks very much.